There’s a rather simplistic, retro “don’t forget where you came from” message lurking within “It Lives Inside,” suggesting that people who leave their native culture behind might well attract — or even deserve — torment from its ancient mythological spirits. But that faintly reactionary finger-wagging is subsumed by the moment-to-moment effectiveness of writer-director Bishal Dutta’s debut feature. Repping one of the better PG-13 horrors of late, it ekes sufficient menace from the familiar story gist of a consuming demonic presence passed from one beleaguered victim to another.
Though the results aren’t terribly original or memorable, they do provide a creepy 90-odd minutes. Lack of marquee names or an established franchise association won’t put this in a position to rival “The Nun II” or the imminent “Saw X” at the box office. Still, Neon’s theatrical release — six months after a well-received SXSW premiere — should do well amongst genre fans looking for some preliminary scares in the countdown to Halloween.
After a prologue detailing the final moments of a prior casualty, we meet Samidha (Megan Suri), a high-schooler living in a leafy U.S. suburb of spacious split-level homes on culs-de-sac. She lives in one such with her Indian emigre parents, whose fundamentally different attitudes towards American life carry over to their parenting. Dad Inesh (Vik Sahay), whose evidently flourishing career occasioned this move in the first place, gauges his only child’s thoroughly Westernized style with winking approval. But mom Poona (Neeru Bajwa) still feels their “real” home is on the other side of the world. She resents her daughter’s ill-concealed lack of interest in customs, courtesies and beliefs she dutifully tries to pass on — ones Sam finds completely irrelevant.
Indeed, Sam doesn’t want to be associated with anything her peers might find “exotic,” however well-intentioned (or naively condescending) their interest in her ethnic heritage. To that end, she’s already ditched former best friend Tamira (Mohana Krishnan), an embarrassingly odd duck, in order to fit in better with the popular crowd. This generates some guilty feelings. But when the disheveled, withdrawn ex-friend shows up in the locker room gibbering about an evil spirit, Sam is mortified, impulsively knocking to the ground the grungy-looking Mason jar that Tamira has been carrying around.
Big mistake. That sealed jar was evidently the only thing restraining something very, very bad, though it required constant feedings of raw meat nonetheless. Now it is loose, to the immediate grief of Tamira who vanishes moments later, and soon causing Sam distress as well. She begins experiencing frightful visions that are no more reassuring for being nightmares that can be woken from — at least for the time being. Searching for the missing Tamira, she enlists help from Russ (Gage Marsh), the cute, affable classmate she’s crushing on. But it turns out the thing now stalking our heroine’s soul does not like helpers. That bodes ill for both Russ and sympathetic teacher Joyce (Betty Gabriel).
Once desperate enough to confide in mom, Sam is informed she’s probably facing a Pishacha, a Hindu mythological “demonic entity that feeds on negative energy” — as well as human flesh. It must be lured, placated and trapped, preferably before the end of the seven-day span when poor Tamira (still alive but in dire straits) will be killed.
Billed as “From the producers of ‘Get Out,’” “It Lives Inside” bears little resemblance to that witty mix of horror fantasy and social satire. This is a straight-up, uncomplicated scarefest whose earnest, superficial treatment of racial and cultural divisions never develops much deeper resonance. Perhaps because she’s the plot’s scold, as well as deliverer of silly-sounding supernatural intel, Bajwa’s Poona seems to dominate all the most labored scenes here. But the other actors bring persuasive conviction to their parts, with Suri a strong lead. Particularly good is Gabriel, another holdover from “Get Out,” where she was exceptional in a wildly different role. She gets probably the best setpiece here, a long queasy episode in an eerily empty school at night.
With its low kill count and minimal gore, Dutta’s film will doubtless suffer the usual criticisms from horror buffs that it’s not hardcore enough. But the director brings the right solemnity to his script, which in less able hands might have grown ridiculous. That it doesn’t is a testament to the film’s nicely accomplished atmospherics, realized in large part by Matthew Lynn’s widescreen cinematography, Tyler Harron’s production design and Wesley Hughes’ original score.
Their efforts cast a certain spell that overcomes even the somewhat underwhelming demon itself, when finally seen whole — a distant relation to the Creature From the Black Lagoon, with Jenaya Ross in the monster suit — as well as a tepid fadeout. “It Lives Inside” does not bear much thinking about, during or afterward. But above-average craftsmanship makes the middling material feel reasonably distinctive while you’re watching. Its gloomy tension raises matters a notch or two above the slasher cliches Dutta resists, and the teen-angst conventions he doesn’t.
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