Since the 1920s, monsters on the big screen have stood in for more complex ideas. That trend continues today, with powerful films like Nope and Barbarian utilizing their creatures in unique ways. In that sense, It Lives Inside comes from a long lineage of horror stories. Yet the specificity present within It Lives Inside helps it stand out from similar horror features. Bishal Dutta‘s stunning debut feels personal yet heartbreakingly universal.
Samidha (Megan Suri) wants to belong. She struggles with her Indian-American heritage, exacerbated by her mother (Neeru Bajwa) clinging to tradition. At school, she’s found acceptance with a boy and other white kids. While they often ask her to teach them about her heritage, she’s willing to explain her history. However, when her best friend from childhood – Tamira (Mohana Krishnan), begins acting strangely, Samidha feels compelled to help. When Tamira disappears, Samidha gets looped into a dangerous game with a monster from the shadows.
Dutta uses each interaction at school and home to say something profound about the immigrant experience. Samidha cannot keep her feet in both worlds. She struggles to connect with the popular students, especially when her family duties prevent her from hanging out with friends. Over the first half of It Lives Inside, Dutta brilliantly brings the fears and wants of a teenager to life. When her teacher (Betty Gabriel) asks her to check in on Tamira, she understandably presumes there’s a racial undercurrent to the question. It’s a subtle but brilliant touch to examine a teen that wants to find their place. Choosing to explore a girl that feels weighed down by their heritage brings nuance and poignant dialogue to the movie.
The performance from Suri helps sell Dutta’s visual flourishes. Suri carries herself with confidence, but at the same time, we can feel her nervous unease. The extreme close-ups of her face allow us to observe her subtle facial acting. A pair of dolly shots, straight out of a Spike Lee movie, bring out the zombie-like walk she’s experiencing daily. Suri is more than capable of selling these moments, but with Dutta’s assistance, these become even more powerful. The final shot of It Lives Inside rests on Suri, and she crushes the moment.
Additionally, the monster element is introduced quite early in It Lives Inside, but Dutta brilliantly builds it up. The scary moments of It Lives Inside are very scary. A sequence using lights in a school is among the more brilliant setpieces in horror this year. Dutta takes the Jaws approach to the creature, feeding us just enough at various points throughout the film until he lands the climax. It makes those moments even more powerful and shows true patience for the young director.
There are other similar horror films in 2023, but few feel as personal as It Lives Inside. We can feel the power of the director’s vision and his personal connection to the material. The screenplay from Dutta and Ashish Mehta digs into the nuances of the immigrant experience. With an infusion of red lights (not necessarily Giallo but Giallo adjacent), Dutta has a visual flair most would kill for. Keep an eye on this one because a little more polish that comes with higher budgets might make Dutta a household name sooner rather than later.