Loneliness can often feel like a vampiric creature sucking the life from you. It feeds and feeds and feeds until you’re a hollow shell of your former self, tired and barely able to get out of bed. In an impressive debut feature from Bishal Dutta, It Lives Inside—which just played at the Fantasia Film Festival—the director uses a terrifying monster as a metaphor for the isolation of struggling with one’s cultural identity.
Written by Dutta and Ashish Mehta, the film follows Samidha (Megan Suri)—she prefers Sam—a young Indian-American running from her cultural heritage in an attempt to fit in. Once best friends with Tamira (Mohana Krishnan), Sam has abandoned the girl as part of this effort. But when Tamira comes seeking help, claiming she has a vicious entity trapped inside of a jar, Sam turns her back, unwittingly unleashing a thing intent on feeding on her misery until there’s nothing left of her.
Let me just start by saying that I am stunned that this is Dutta’s first feature. It Lives Inside is one hell of a terrifying debut from the exciting director, and one that I’m certain will go down as one of the scariest films of the year.
Opening on mangled bodies lit by a soft, orange glow as we hear the sound of someone screaming and a creature screeching off-screen, It Lives Inside assures the viewer that we are about to watch something truly disturbing. An insurmountable dread pours from the screen thanks to methodical camerawork from Matthew Lynn that tilts and twirls like a circling predator, assisted by one of the most chilling scores I’ve heard all year by composer Wesley Hughes. Each note gives the sensation of a claw pricking at the skin, like something tasting the flesh to see if you’re worth eating or not. If Hughes isn’t nominated in Fangoria’s Chainsaw Awards, we riot.
Upon meeting Sam, we find a girl going through your usual teenage angst—concerned with her looks, falling for cute boys, etc—except what she is experiencing goes deeper than that. An Indian-American, she has found herself an outsider both at home and at school. Sam refuses to speak Hindi with her parents and recoils from her mother’s attempts to get her to embrace their heritage. In class, she’s the “different” girl, more of an interesting prop for the white kids, asked to do things like speak Hindi for videos. Even her teacher, Joyce (Betty Gabriel), makes her feel “other” by singling her out to ask her what’s going on with the one other Indian-American girl, Tamira, while also reminding her, “we gotta look after our own”. But Sam doesn’t want to be part of any group. She’s a prisoner in her own skin who wishes the world could look right past her without giving a second thought.
As Sam sees it, Tamira is a “big girl” and can take care of herself. Having the same heritage doesn’t make them friends, nor should it. Tamira, looking every bit like Sadako from Ringu with her hair hanging down over her face, reflects the way she’s been outcast by the white class…the thing Sam dreads most. It Lives Inside emphasizes Sam’s confusion in her identity through frequent blurring of images and a cacophonic frenzy of whispers that represent her disassociation from reality. Atmospheric shades of red and orange highlight the hellish existence she can’t seem to escape from.
It Lives Inside might seem at first like your usual depressed teens meets supernatural horror story. The script isn’t shy about incorporating tropes such as the creepy outcast, the strange house where something happened or the journal full of disturbing images. Yet Dutta’s film is a uniquely frightening representation of depression that speaks to the ravenous nature of feeling as if you don’t belong. More like a possession story meets creature feature, it works off of a less is more philosophy by only showing small glimpses of the voracious thing stalking Sam until we get to see it in all of its glory through a terrific blend of practical and digital effects that are well worth the wait. Depression works similarly. A snarling thing that hides in the shadows until it springs forth with terrible devastation.
What makes the monster at the heart of It Lives Inside so scary isn’t a series of effective jump scares—though there are plenty—but a viciousness that captures the rage of loneliness with painful accuracy. The film may be rated PG-13, but don’t assume that makes it any less horrific or difficult to stomach. Dutta substitutes gore with a monster that is shocking in its cruelty, ravaging victims with such anger that it roars loud enough to shake you to your core. It’s a little light on the body count and the lore is at best vague while not always following its own rules, yet the powerful fury which the creature represents is menacing enough to allow minor flaws to be overlooked.
The script borrows a bit too much from films that inspired it--Ringu has a heavy presence, from long-haired monsters to a “seven days” ticking clock that feels lazily inserted to add tension—while the emotional arc between Sam and others becomes second to the core mystery and therefore doesn’t have the punch it needs to, but It Lives Inside is nevertheless a frightening debut from Butta that warns about the danger in bottling up our emotions, as well as the pain it causes when we ignore someone’s waning mental health. Do not miss It Lives Inside, but be warned…once it gets under your skin, you can’t get it out.
It Lives Inside arrives in theaters September 22nd from Neon.
Note: This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film covered here wouldn't exist. I support the members of WGA and SAG-AFTRA.
By Matt Konopka