Bishal Dutta’s It Lives Inside begins on an appropriately ominous note; the camera prowls down a dark hallway, blood-splattered on walls and bodies lying on the ground, ravaged. Howls echo from somewhere below, alongside sounds of a struggle; the camera eventually pans over a burned-out husk of a body, then to a glass masonry jar. The noises have stopped, and whatever was making them has been contained. Of course, there’s still the rest of the movie to get to, so it’s not so much a question of if this thing will get out, but when and how. Dutta isn’t reinventing the wheel here; It Lives Inside treads familiar ground, and any audience even a little bit versed in the genre will be able to predict key story beats. But the film is also an example of exactly how to infuse otherwise staid material with a fresh perspective and complicated, interesting characters.
When we first meet Samidha (Megan Suri), she’s getting ready for school. A pretty high school student, she’s also Indian, and part of her morning routine is shaving her arms and using an Instagram filter to lighten her skin tone on her selfies. Beyond the normal pressures of being a teenager, Sam (as she prefers to be called) also has to worry about fitting in — assimilating. She butts heads with her mother, Pooma (Neeru Bajwa), who wears traditional garb and speaks Hindi to Sam, who insists on responding in English. Dutta sketches in this familial dynamic quickly, with minimal fuss, allowing larger questions about racism and anti-immigration sentiment to linger in the margins; one brief but effective moment finds Sam rushing out of the house, refusing the home-cooked lunch her mother had made her, then quickly sniffing her shirt to make sure she doesn’t smell like Indian food.
At school, Sam seems well-liked, but is also subject to micro-aggressions from oblivious classmates and teachers. When Sam’s childhood friend Tamira (Mohana Krishnan) shows up to school looking frightfully disheveled, teacher Joyce (Betty Gabriel) assumes Sam keeps tabs on her, since they are both Indian. In fact, the young women have grown apart as Sam has largely rejected tradition and embraced being American, while Tamira feels less need to “fit in.” It’s clear that teachers and fellow students see Tamira as a “bad immigrant” (there are multiple refrains of “what’s her problem?” heard throughout), while Sam is one of “the good ones” (her new friends are all white). But this schism between former pals is the least of anyone’s worries; Tamira is in possession of the jar glimpsed at the beginning of the film, and whatever is inside of it is getting stronger and hungrier.
The plot thickens from there. Sam and Tamira have an argument, and when Sam knocks the jar from Tamira’s hands and shatters it, the thing inside is released. It absconds with Tamira, and then begins hunting Sam. As one character explains, the creature, or whatever it is, likes to terrorize its victims first, feeding off of their fear and emotional strife in order to “soften” the soul, which it then eventually consumes. And so it sets out to isolate Sam, targeting the cute boy with the thousand-watt smile who wants to date her, as well as Joyce, who is the only adult who seems to believe Sam’s story of this mythological creature. Dutta and cinematographer Matthew Lynn craft some excellent set pieces here; the duo are adept at utilizing the widescreen frame for maximum impact. Every inch of negative space becomes ominous, and jump scares are dolled out sparingly but effectively. One elaborate sequence pulls out all the stops, as someone is stalked through the long hallways of the high school, then a dark bathroom, and finally the close quarters of a locker room. It’s a game of hide and seek with life-and-death death consequences, as each stage of the chase becomes more and more claustrophobic (there’s also clever deployment of motion-sensor lights, a gag seen recently in Morbius, but done here with significantly more impact on a fraction of that terrible movie’s bloated budget).
As is increasingly the case in the horror genre, the malevolent force here is also symbolic — only the strengthening of bonds and reunification of friends and family can give our intrepid heroine a chance against her supernatural foe. But Dutta thankfully never forgets that a horror movie is also supposed to be scary — a low bar that’s nonetheless infrequently cleared these days — and solid craftsmanship, a keen sense of pacing, and some impressive compositions go a long way. It Lives Inside isn’t a new classic by any means, and its flaws of familiarity are felt, but you could do considerably worse in kicking off the spooky season.
DIRECTOR: Bishal Dutta; CAST: Neeru Bajwa, Megan Suri, Mohana Krishnan, Vik Sahay; DISTRIBUTOR: NEON; IN THEATERS: September 22; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 39 min.