They do make horror movies in India, but those are seldom exported, and for a good reason: Their aesthetics don’t translate so well to American tastes. Our horror aficionados (who’ve had an easier time appreciating Japanese horror films) are less likely to sit still through musical numbers, a feature of most Indian movies. This week, though, It Lives Inside opens in our multiplexes as an Indian horror movie tailored to Western audiences. On a narrative level, this thing is pretty similar to the dozens of films we’ve seen about American girls being stalked by demons. On the other hand, see the protagonist chanting “Om shanti om” while facing down the monster and tell me that this is the same.
That protagonist is Samidha (Megan Suri), a second-generation teenager growing up in one of those leafy John Carpenter suburbs somewhere in North America. Sam’s mom (Neera Bajwa) can’t understand why her daughter has stopped speaking Hindi, started seeking out white friends, and grown apart from her ex-best friend Tamira (Mohana Krishnan). Of course, that last bit may be because Tamira has taken to acting like a crazy person, scaring everyone at their school by materializing behind them with a thousand-yard stare and tapping a glass jar that she carries around all the time. She tells Sam that there’s a monster inside the jar, and Sam responds by dashing it to the ground and shattering it. You don’t need to be Hindu to see bad things coming.
This is the first feature for writer-director Bishal Dutta, and he executes a cool shot in a stairway vestibule at school, when something pulls Tamira backward and the camera whirls around to take in Sam and her history teacher (Betty Gabriel) bursting into the vestibule to find it empty. The monster here is a pishach, a shape-shifting and occasionally invisible demon that feeds on its victims’ fears before eating their souls — it’s a lot like It from It Follows, actually. The thing starts stalking Sam’s non-Indian friends, and Dutta’s staging of the scenes isn’t up to scratch. The same goes for his attempts to tie the monster to the issues in Sam’s family and the nice Indian boy they knew who supposedly snapped and killed his parents and himself. (His diary gives Sam clues to fighting the pishach.) There’s a hint of the deeper movie this could have been when Sam bitches at her mom, “Why’d you come [to America] just to become another Desi housewife who cooks and cleans?”, but overall, this thing isn’t as thought through as it should be.
For all that, this is a Hindu American horror movie opening on a large scale, and as such, it’s unique. You probably never thought you’d see the main character of a Hollywood film complaining about having to make the prasad for the festival of Durga Puja (food offerings to celebrate the goddess Durga’s vanquishing of a similar demon). Here it is, and it will likely prepare the way for better movies about Indian-Americans, whether they’re horror films or not. The nine days of Durga Puja fall in October this year, just before Halloween, and It Lives Inside will work to mark either holiday.
It Lives Inside
Starring Megan Suri and Neera Bajwa. Written and directed by Bishal Dutta. Rated PG-13.