Well, let me ask you this, Mr. Pope’s Exorcist: Have you tried feeding the demon?
Writer/director Bishal Dutta’s It Lives Inside is steeped in religiocultural concerns and shenanigans, many of which involve either preparation of intricate, holy meals or slorping up some raw meat. Dutta and cowriter Ashish Mehta have made one of those “unmistakable metaphor” horror movies, in which the conceit is breathtakingly literal. That approach usually either fully satisfies the audience’s socially savvy hunger or overstuffs viewers to the point of revulsion. It Lives Inside somehow does neither?
An appetizer dressed up as a dinner, borrowing insanely heavily from The Babadook’s cookbook, the film is about the terror of assimilating in America. It’s a subject rife for riffing, but It Lives Inside can’t quite get to the point of saying anything denser or deeper than “It’s hard and stuff.” To be clear, for those of us who have never felt like we had to divide our identities in half, who have never disappointed our mothers by virtue of fitting in with peers, who have never adjusted our bodies to avoid ridicule, it’s a solid point well taken.
Samidha (Megan Suri) is introduced while shaving her arm hair and playing with a skin lightening filter on her phone. This is the last time the film comes anywhere near subtlety’s zip code. One of Sam’s fellow Indian classmates, Tamira (Mohana Kirshnan), has been wandering around their high-school holding a jar. Is that what kids do these days? No. It turns out there’s a demon in there, which she feeds raw meat. She confides this to Sam, who breaks Satan’s Smucker’s jar in an attempt to look cool to white folks watching.
The demon, known as a Pishach, has a wonderfully fun design. Rendered mostly in practical effects, it’s got wild hair, glowing eyes, and a vibe that says “I’m gonna eat you, but maybe you’ll like it.” The Pishach launches into its invisible feeding frenzy, while Sam’s mom (Neeru Bajwa) turns to food offerings and prayer in attempt to prevent more monster monching. You’ll never guess the ending, unless you can read and have thus read the title of the film.
Right up until the climax, the light-CGI/heavy practical effects strategy was bang-on. The best scene in the movie is set in broad daylight, and is a reminder that more horror movies should exploit sunny days. Terror in the dark is expected. Watching human bodies pretzel outside between the hours of 9-5 pm? Terrifying. Sadly, the film surrenders to silly CGI right at the end in a way that feels like a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode. In a bad way.
Honestly, the movie has a lot of good things in common with Buffy and has the benefit of coming from the perspective of someone other than Joss Whedon’s lens. It’s just not quite there on any level. It’s never truly scary, though it clearly wants to be. The acting isn’t bad enough to be campy fun or good enough to feel authentic. The script digs in a rich soil but stays in the loosest dirt. It’s almost fun, nearly thoughtful, and kinda significant. This isn’t a “there but for the grace of God” warning so much as a “temper your expectations” appraisal. It won’t fill you up so much as leave you raiding cinematic cupboard for meatier fare.
Grade = C
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Murjani Rawls at Draftkings Network says the film “looks at one family’s experience but feels unprepared to commit to the specific things it’s trying to shine a light on.”
Siddhant Adklakha at IGN says “The cultural specifics of It Lives Inside ought to make it stand out in the Hollywood horror landscape. Instead, these ideas not only find themselves tacked on to a tensionless teen thriller, they also take overly simplistic forms.”
Hector A. Gonzalez at Loud and Clear Reviews says “While Dutta fails to shift some of his culture’s elements into a palpable form for the horror genre, the underdeveloped and one-note characters cause more significant injury and detachment.”