A beautiful Indian American teen, Samidha (Megan Suri), just wants to fit in with her suburban classmates in the new horror ” It Lives Inside.” But there’s a demon at large and it’s not hormones or puberty — it’s a literal monster that will maim and kill you and anyone who tries to help in this grisly, if imperfect, metaphor for the immigrant experience.
It’s the feature debut of Bishal Dutta, who co-wrote the film with Ashish Mehta, and crafts an effectively menacing PG-13 rated nail-biter centered around the interesting and conflicting dynamics of an Indian American family. The mom, Poorna (Neeru Bajwa) is determined to keep up with the traditions of the country they left behind. Samidha – sorry, Sam – would rather not, which her dad supports, in theory. She shaves her arms in the morning and posts a Kardashian-level selfie with a carefully chosen filter. She “forgets” the lunch her mother has packed her. She resents the Indian customs and holidays that prevent her from hanging out with the cute guy in her class. And she’s cast aside her old best friend, a fellow Indian American named Tamira (Mohana Krishnan), hoping that maybe she can just blend in and not be the “Indian girl” anymore. Essentially, she’s a normal teen, through and through.
Unfortunately for Sam, Tamira has gotten pretty weird. Her childhood friend skulks around school like a ghost, hidden behind a curtain of unbrushed hair and cradling a cloudy Mason jar like her life depended on it – not exactly the kind of person that an aspiring popular girl wants on her resume. And it just gets worse because, naturally, IT does live inside that Mason jar and that Mason jar is unable to withstand a fall to the floor. Oops.
Dutta gets your heartrate going off the bat, with a creepy prologue as screams flood out of a normal suburban house, but Sam’s descent into one of the haunted never quite finds a suitable or consistent tone. It’s all moody, wide-eyed paranoia with “Stranger Things” vibes that’s occasionally interrupted by run-of-the-mill jump-scares and demonic nightmare visions. It’ll startle and spook, but it also doesn’t feel incredibly original, which is an odd failure for a story that has chosen to focus on a very original threat.
Her parents are a bit confounding and frustrating too – as she becomes increasingly paranoid and scared (which seems reasonable after she witnesses the shocking death of a classmate, regardless of whether it was invisible demon or rabid wild animal) they respond like she’s just a delinquent who has broken curfew or been caught skipping school. The only one who seems to care and listen is her teacher (“Get Out’s” Betty Gabriel), which does not put her in the good graces of the vindictive, flesh-eating Pishacha.
The story also doesn’t really grapple enough with the intriguing themes of assimilation, alienation and identity once the monster is at large – perhaps it’s because we’re simply plopped in the middle of a mystery that doesn’t give us enough to really care about anyone involved. One kid’s already dead. Tamira is already weird. Sam is already cool.
“It Lives Inside” is still a welcome respite from the other long-in-the-tooth horror franchises populating theaters this time of year in that it’s just something new – new faces, new themes, a promising filmmaker to watch – but I wish it would have embraced more of the things that make it unique as opposed to trying to fit in with its genre brethren. Sort of like Sam. I mean, Samidha.
“It Lives Inside,” a Neon release in theaters Friday, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for “teen drug use, brief strong language, bloody images, terror, violent content.” Running time: 99 minutes. Two stars out of four.