It Lives Inside


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

It Lives Inside
"A superior quality horror film which amply justifies the hype it has attracted on the festival circuit, It Lives Inside is not to be missed." | Photo: courtesy of Frightfest

Was there a kid at your school who had a haunted look, who was quiet and withdrawn and a natural target for bullies? The kind of kid whom others were afraid to get close to in case people thought they were weird too. Perhaps you were that kid. As an adult one might look at such situations and suspect that something is seriously wrong – divorcing parents, perhaps, or bereavement or abuse. For teenagers desperately preoccupied with establishing themselves socially, it’s a lot harder to achieve that perspective, or to feel inspired to reach out.

When concerned teacher Joyce (Betty Gabriel) asks Samidha (Megan Suri) how Tamira (Mohana Krishnan) is doing, she’s surprised that the girl reacts as if she’s been insulted, but Samidha – or Sam, as she prefers to be known – has two reasons for not wanting to be associated with her former best friend. She doesn’t want to damage her hard-earned reputation as a cool kid, and she doesn’t want to be lumped in with the other Desi girl and seen purely for her race. Even at home, she doesn’t like speaking Hindi. She shaves her arms and follows American fashion and does her best to fit in.

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It doesn’t go down well at home. Her father has an easy-going attitude but her mother, Poorna (Neeru Bajwa) interprets her behaviour as a form of personal rejection, as well as worrying about what other members of the community will think. It’s bad enough that Sam no longer seems excited by her studies and has just failed her driving test for the third time. Poorna works hard to keep her family happy, preparing delicious meals every night and looking after their nice suburban home with its tasteful décor and its fireguard representing the goddess Durga. She wishes that Sam would take more of an interest in what she still sees as their shared culture – but she has no inkling of just how much danger Sam is about to be in without it.

It all begins when Tamira confronts Sam to ask for help. She’s holding a glass jar inside which, she insists, is a thing she has captured, a thing which needs to be placated with offerings of raw meat. Viewers may suspect that this relates in some way to a grisly prologue in which we have seen a writhing, charred body and a partially burned book inside a fire-stained house, but Sam has no such awareness and no patience for what she sees as superstitious nonsense. The result is an argument which will place Tamira in desperate peril and leave Sam, the only person with any real clue about what has happened to her, on the fast track to becoming that anxious, withdrawn figure herself.

It’s these multiple layers of narrative which make Bishal Dutta’s film – recently screened at both Fantasia and Frightfest - such an intriguing piece of work. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that there is a supernatural creature involved – one with which Indian viewers will likely be familiar, but which has received little attention elsewhere – but that’s not the only thing that Sam is haunted by. In order to stand a chance of overcoming her foe, she must reckon with her complicated feelings about her heritage, and seek to repair her relationship with her mother.

There’s a lot going on here in a film which also finds time for romance, as Sam and schoolmate Russ (Gage Marsh) make eyes at each other in a way which reminds us just how young and vulnerable they are. Their richly detailed world makes it easier for viewers to suspend disbelief and to invest emotionally. The cast are uniformly excellent, and one hopes that this film will help to establish some previously underused talent. Dutta trusts them to do much of the heavy lifting when it comes to building up fear, and they don’t let him down. For most of the running time he eschews gore or obvious violence and instead uses simpler tricks to spectacularly creepy effect. In one early scene, the simple process of a door opening and closing will have you gripping the edge of your seat.

A superior quality horror film which amply justifies the hype it has attracted on the festival circuit, It Lives Inside is not to be missed. It will have particular value for Desi US viewers who rarely see themselves onscreen, but there’s plenty here to recommend it to anyone.

Reviewed on: 26 Aug 2023
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Sam, an Indian-American teen, lives in an idyllic suburb with her conservative mother and her assimilated father. Sam’s cultural insecurities grow due to her estranged friend, Tamira, who mysteriously carries around an empty mason jar all the time. In a moment of anger, Sam breaks Tamira’s jar and unleashes an ancient Indian demonic force that kidnaps Tamira.
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Director: Bishal Dutta

Writer: Bishal Dutta, Ashish Mehta

Starring: Megan Suri, Neeru Bajwa, Mohana Krishnan, Betty Gabriel, Vik Sahay

Year: 2023

Runtime: 99 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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