By: Brian Robert Oliver
First time director Bishal Dutta’s It Lives Inside takes a groundbreaking premise but fails to break any ground. Sam, or Samidha, is a second generation Hindi-American teenager doing everything she can to assimilate into American culture. She shaves her arms and wears heaps of makeup to blend in to her white world. Like a lot of people in Sam’s position, her mother is upset with her daughter’s integration. To make matters worse, her former friend and fellow Hindi-American, Tamira, sticks out like a sore thumb at school, reflecting poorly on Sam. It also doesn’t help that Tamira is a loner who looks insane and carries around a mason jar she talks to. Before you know it, Sam unknowingly releases an angry spirit that threatens to destroy both she and Tamira.
Dutta pays Homage to A Nightmare on Elm Street
If the premise sounds fresh it’s because it is. However, its execution suffers because it wastes precious time trying to figure out what it wants to be. Like its protagonist, Sam, It Lives Inside doesn’t know who or what it is, but once it finds itself, it’s not the movie it thought it was from the outset. It Lives Inside pays homage to A Nightmare on Elm Street both visually and sonically. It also borrows heavily from The Evil Dead as well as Ju-On: The Grudge. While all three films are stone cold classics, these are not the films within its own subgenre. Had Dutta and co-writer Ashish Mehta understood their story better they would have instead turned to The Exorcist. But they didn’t and end up making two fatal mistakes. They let a pointless character live and created a shitty monster.
You Can’t Have it Both Ways
There are two stories being told. The first one is about the cultural divide separating Sam from her mother, Poorna. Poorna sees that Sam, or Samidha, is turning away from the morals and culture of her home country and fears she will lose that connection with her daughter. The other story is about a girl who strives to perfectly assimilate and blend into a Caucasian world. Still, no matter how hard she tries will always be a fetish to her peers. She crushes on a white kid named Russ who has no clue of her culture. Her red headed best friend insinuates that Sam is good at math simply because she is East Asian. In other words, It Lives Inside has a lot it wants to say, and because of that, doesn’t say enough.
So, the audience and its director thinks the movie is the second story about Sam’s futile assimilation. Nope. Turns out it’s the first story about her mother. After painfully grinding through two full acts, it is revealed that Sam has summoned a demon called Pishach so she turns to her mother for help. Poorna teaches Sam the correct prayers in order to save her daughter. Up until this point Poorna simply pouts for two acts about how her daughter doesn’t talk to her or respect their traditions.
It Lives Inside is Could Have been the Hindi-American The Exorcist
You see, ILI spends its first act mimicking A Nightmare on Elm Street, and its second act paying homage to The Evil Dead. Both of these films serve as modern parables relating to youth. NES is about a time in your teens when you realize you must pay for the sins of your parents. ED is about the arrogance of your early 20’s and messing with the unknown. This is all well if it was a film about the dangers of assimilation, but it’s really about a mother coming to terms with her daughter’s adulthood and sexual awakening, which is what The Exorcist is about.
For a horror film to work, it needs focus. The story has to be lean in order for the tension/suspense to build and the themes clear to establish a consistent style. ILI fails at both and it starts with the script. Dutta thought he had the freedom to explore two similar themes of assimilation and family culture issues, but he was wrong. He chose two when it should have been one. What is left is a script bogged down with pointless details and characters that do not serve the overall story. This starts with his first sin, not killing off Tamira.
You Have to Sacrifice Characters for the Sake of the Film
While Dutta’s homage to A Nightmare on Elm Street does not work, he could have taken an important lesson from it. Tina from NES is the perfect example of sacrificing a great character to up the stakes. Tina was interesting and she was somewhat fleshed out enough in character to make her violent death impactful. However, and more importantly, she served as a warning that what happened to Tina can happen to the protagonist, Nancy. Also, her death clears up space in the plot. Dutta and Mehta do not do this, and the story suffers. Tamira starts as an intriguing character but nothing more. We don’t get to know her nor do we know of her past with Sam. Truth is, she is better served as a “Tina” type.
Tamira ends up coming into contact with Sam seeking her help. She tells Sam that there is a monster in the creepy jar she carries around and whispers to. This is the first time she talks. We don’t know anything else about her. If she dies then she served the story well, even though it plays into the trope. If she lives, then you have to build her story. By leaving Tamira alive, there is not enough time to dedicate to either Tamira nor the other characters.
What you are left with is one dead white kid (no one else dies BTW) that no one cares about, and a teacher, whose only point is to feed a little information to Sam a la Sinister, that is attacked. Those are some low stakes. Had Dutta had the nerve to kill Tamira when he had the chance, it could have kept the tone consistent. Yet Tamira goes missing when she could have served as much needed horror in a film severely lacking in it. Had this happened, then the main story, which is about the Sam and her mother, is given the space to thrive.
Also, it would have given time to establish the mystery of the demon, or the Pishach. And this really needs to be addressed because the demon in this film is really awful, and not in a good, horror film way. In most good horror movies, the monster or bad guy is a metaphor for the main theme. In It Lives Inside, the demon is a metaphor for how second generation east Asian kids will never truly fit in with their US counterparts, and this is a great idea, but the execution is piss poor. Because the script is bogged down with too much story and too many pointless characters, the mystery of the demon is never established, nor even seen until the last act. When we do get a full peek of it, it’s ridiculous. It’s like a cross between Venom and the half human/half alien from Alien: Resurrection.
I wanted to like this film but unfortunately it’s a hard pass. This story does need to be told and it is a fascinating subject and ripe for horror but this ain’t it. We end up with two halves of interesting stories that do not line up as intended. If Dutta is given another shot at this, and I hope he gets it then he should heed this advice: learn the story you want to tell before choosing your references. Better luck next time, man.