Director: Bishal Dutta
Cast: Megan Suri, Betty Gabriel, Neeru Bajwa, Mohana Krishnan, Vik Sahhay, Gage Marsh, Jenaya Ross, Beatrice Kitsos
Runtime: 1 hr 40 mins
Rating: NC16 (Horror)
Released By: Shaw
Opening Day: 26 October 2023
Synopsis: Sam is desperate to fit in at school, rejecting her Indian culture and family to be like everyone else. When a mythological demonic spirit latches onto her former best friend, she must come to terms with her heritage in order to defeat it.
Trying to fit in can be bedevilling. Such is the struggle that Samidha (Megan Suri), a first-generation Indian American teenager, faces. Over the course of the first two acts, we learn how Samidha had in recent years chosen to distance herself from her cultural identity. In school, she goes by “Sam” and would rather not be seen in the company of her childhood best friend Tamira (Mohana Krishnan), a fellow first-generation Indian-American who is much less of a social creature; and at home, she resists participating in what she thinks are antiquated ceremonies.
Writer-director Bishal Dutta’s debut feature aims to mix conventional horror with social commentary, so in addition to the struggles fitting in, Samidha has to contend with an entity that she inadvertently unleashed after shattering a jar that Tamira had been clutching tightly to her chest during an argument. Not only does the said entity kidnap Tamira shortly after, it begins to torment Samidha and attack those close to her, including the classmate Russ (Gage Marsh) she has a crush on and her teacher Joyce (Betty Gabriel) who tries to help her.
To be sure, it is only later in the second act that it becomes clear that the entity is indeed a physical demon, instead of say just a psychological monster. While the latter does allow Dutta to stage some fairly intense sequences in the last act, it also relegates the film to a far more conventional thriller than what we had hoped. In particular, there is no longer any mystery if it is all in Samidha’s head or if the entity is a physical manifestation of what Samidha is feeling, and consequent to that, any sense of intrigue whether it is a movie supporting a metaphor or the other way around.
As a creature horror, Dutta does pack sufficient frights and thrills to make it work, including with a litany of dream sequences of the Pishacha – in Hindu and Buddhist folklore, a flesh-eating demon – and an adrenaline-pumping climax that gives new meaning to the title. But it is also precisely with such definition that the movie loses sight of the culture-conscious social commentary it wants to be, and in fact, we dare say the end result doesn’t make good on the promise of the premise which it had set out at the start. Not only is it too convenient how Samidha resolves these tensions with her mother, it also loses focus on Samidha’s identity crisis.
That said, it still does deliver as an effective horror movie, thanks to an unsettling atmosphere and good performances from its Indian American cast. As Samidha, Suri (whom some may recognise from ‘Never Have I Ever’) carries the dilemmas and dreads of her character with conviction. The rest of the supporting players are capable in their own right – especially Gabriel from ‘Get Out’ – but Suri pretty much carries the movie from start to finish, and it is a good thing that Dutta’s screenplay stays through to telling the story from her perspective.
Amidst other socially conscious horror movies like ‘Get Out’ and ‘Midsommar’, ‘It Lives Inside’ falls somewhat short of blending social commentary with actual horror. It starts off strong on the former, then decides to pivot to the latter, and ultimately lacks clarity to deliver a compelling message on the former. Those looking for a good scare will probably still find enough jolts to be satisfied, but because it was sold and set up as a social horror, the real killer you’d quickly realise is how it falls short of the expectation it is guilty of setting in the first place.
(Not quite delivering the social commentary it wanted to, this socially conscious horror nonetheless packs sufficient frights and thrills for a good scare)
Review by Gabriel Chong