I don’t feel it’s unreasonable to say that much of the best of the horror genre taps into real-life social issues. From Candyman’s analysis of gentrification and cultural self-panoptigonising, to His House’s look at the immigrant experience and how difficult it can be to adjust to a new place and culture where it can seem everyone is trying to push you back out. Bishal Dutta’s It Lives Inside shares a certain level of attempted deconstruction of the immigrant experience with His House; so why does it fail to land in the same way?
The film follows Sam, a high school student of Indian origin who’s family is in the midst of assimilating with western society. Sam’s mother insists she continue to follow traditions and pay respect to her heritage, and Sam struggles between this and high school social life, shunning her mother’s packed lunches in favour of school lunches which she believes allows her to better socialise with the American students, including a romantic interest. This has also led to her becoming estranged from her childhood friend Tamira, who has become a social outcast, largely for carrying a glass jar, inside which is a horrifying monster.
Being the feature-length debut from Dutta, there is a certain amount of leniency one is tempted to allow, releasing a film under a major distributor is no small feat in and of itself; and there is a lot to like here. The script is well structured and never feels like it’s suffering downtime, a trap a lot of directors fall into when moving from short film to feature-length – the presentation of the antagonist is fittingly mysterious and secretive, slowly revealing the creature and the direction, cinematography and production design can be really interesting and realistic… sometimes. Yes, with all of these points comes caveats:
As well-paced as the script is, the minute to minute dialogue can be jarring, and character emotions are inconsistent at key moments in what feels like it’s clearly just Dutta trying to get the plot where it needs to go. One example that comes to mind is early on in the film when Sam has a violent physical outburst at Tamira, only to calmly pick up and try to return a book she had dropped a short while earlier. The issues with portraying emotion, which is no slight upon the performances from actors doing the best they can, extends to all of the character relationships. Interpersonal arcs too often fall into some by-the-numbers beats, the teen romance blooming at a party, the ex-childhood friend rediscovered and the teenager pushing away her mother, it’s sadly a little too predictable. Luckily there’s that wonderful mysterious monster to shake things up, right? Well, whenever the creature does show up and wreak havoc, raking in quite the body count, it ends up feeling quite underwhelming. There’s multiple scenes in this film where people are just lifted up, stabbed by an unseen force, and dropped to the ground, dead. It’s reminiscent of the lacklustre kills in Scream VI from the start of this year. Even when the creature is revealed toward the end of the film, it’s a pretty standard watered-down Xenomorph/Predator type design. They had a real chance to link the symbolism the movie is going for with the monster itself and its appearance, but for some reason decided to take the low road.
In fact, that brings me to the production design in general, because it’s not just the monster. As I mentioned earlier, there are moments in this film where it really shines, giving us believable places and one early basement scene matches a very minimal design with some great exaggerated lighting to create a very supernatural feeling. But these stand out in the film as the majority of the time it careens wildly back towards the mundane. For most of the film’s runtime it’s impossible to forget that what you’re looking at isn’t a real place but a dressed set, and at no point does it make any attempt to tie what you’re seeing on screen to the characters or the themes the film is attempting to explore. It’s perhaps the biggest shame of the film, when there’s so much opportunity to blend American and Indian design in the more surreal moments or in characters’ homes – the uninteresting design of the monster being a thesis statement on how not to tie in the writing to your visuals. The end result is that the little this film does achieve thematically feels so heavy-handed as to become near-comical.
Again, I feel a little bad picking apart the first feature of an aspiring director, that really does have great moments. At the end of the day It Lives Inside isn’t a film looking to be the best horror movie you’ve seen this year; it’s a run-of-the-mill teen horror through and through. For the most part this film deals with some pretty conventional horror tropes and conventions; but it’s the incorporation of Hindu folklore and the clear-from-the-outset commentary on the struggles of immigrant cultural shifting that add in a hint of extra spice to what is an otherwise flavourless dish.
It Lives Inside is now playing in theaters.