IT LIVES INSIDE Review: The Monster Next Door
Megan Suri, Neeru Bajwa, and Mohana Krishnan star in a horror thriller, directed by Bishal Dutta.
It’s a banner year for debut filmmakers at SXSW, and Bishal Dutta’s It Lives Inside is one of the reasons that we can make that claim.
A horror story centering around first generation Indian-American teens, It Lives Inside balances the visceral and intellectual horror of growing up in an immigrant household well.
Samidha (Megan Suri, Never Have I Ever) – call her Sam – is the daughter of Indian immigrant parents. At home, she tries to align herself with her more traditional mother, but does so begrudgingly.
When asked to help in the preparation of the prasad (offering) for an upcoming puja, Sam rolls her eyes and puts her mother off. She gets it, but she so desperately wants to fit in with her American friends that she finds herself distancing from these rituals that may have been fun for Samidha, but seem corny to Sam.
One day at school, her old friend Tamira (Mohana Krishnan) shows up looking disheveled and exhausted, desperately clutching a mason jar, tapping eerily at its sides, mumbling almost incoherently. The two used to be close friends, having grown up as the only two Indian-American children in their idyllic suburb, but when Sam decided that she needed to distance herself from her heritage, that friendship began to disintegrate. However, that jar contains something malevolent that will bind them in ways they never expected.
When Tamira disappears, Sam and her family find themselves in the middle of a crisis of which there is no way out. The thing living in that jar got out, took her, and it’s only a matter of time before it takes Sam, too. It Lives Inside combines the immigrant experience, the ties that keep us connected to our heritage (whether we like it or not), and a good, old-fashioned creature feature in a way that feels both authentic and entertaining in all the right ways.
Much like The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster, another SXSW success story, It Lives Inside fascinates with its ability to place itself within a microculture that many genre film fans won’t have direct access to, but will be able to relate to. The immigrant experience, especially that of those born in the US to immigrant parents, is a fascinating and challenging one, and one to which I can directly relate.
There is a tug of war between assimilation and reverence for a home culture that can seem foreign, a battle that frequently reaches a head during adolescence, when even those kids whose families have spent generations in this country feel the urge to rebel. With immigrant kids, that urge can be compounded and result in rejection of the old ways, dismissal of history and culture, a rebuke of the things that our parents hold so dear, a connection to a home that they cherish, but we never knew.
It Lives Inside explores this raging inner war in the form of a monster movie, a monster from the old world who knows more about you that you know about yourself, a monster who tracks its prey across time and space, a monster who can only be conquered by acknowledgement and celebration of culture, of the very things that make you, you, even if you reject them. It certainly helps that it has some pretty great scares, solid performances from the main cast, and a good-looking monster.
Dutta’s direction is confident, and the support of a great screenplay, written by the director from a story by Ashish Mehta, certainly doesn’t hurt. Megan Suri is in a slightly different mode here after a successful run on Netflix’s Never Have I Ever, but she really nails the energy needed to carry this story. The rest of the supporting cast, including Betty Gabriel (Get Out) as a school teacher caught in the middle of this paranormal crisis, round out this world that is familiar enough externally to be relatable across the board, but internally specific enough to feel real and lived in.
One of my favorite statements about cinema comes from the late, (often) great Roger Ebert, who, in talking about the power of the movies, referred to them as “a machine that generates empathy.” A great film can drop the viewer into completely foreign surroundings and make them feel a precise level of comfort – or discomfort, in this case – through simple things.
It Lives Inside manages that balancing act incredibly well. There are a few moments where I wish it pushed a little bit harder with the gore, but that’s no fault of the film. Dutta knows exactly the level he’s trying to reach here, and he definitely got there.
The final reel of It Lives Inside delivers some solid scares and great creature work while still managing to ratchet up the tension and maintaining character and story integrity. The climax is a touch shaky, but there’s so much working around that one moment, that it’s easy to forgive a slight misstep.
I go to the movies to live someone else’s life for a couple of hours. I enjoy the feeling of being dropped into a world that is unfamiliar to me and having the film make me feel at home, even in a horror film. It Lives Inside does just that; it brings the audience into a world that they may not realize exists right next door, and then scares the crap out of them. Good stuff.
Review originally published during SXSW in March 2023. The film opens Friday, September 22, 2023, via NEON. Visit the official site for more information.