I’ve mentioned quite a few times before that one of my major annoyances with modern horror films — particularly supernatural ones — is the presupposition inherent in them that the Christian version of God is true. We’ve seen this in tons of movies over the years, from the Conjuring series to The Unholy, and it always rubs me the wrong way. This isn’t a gripe with Christianity itself, but with lazy, uninspired writing. So many horror flicks just take it as read that the biblical version of events is real, and that any spirit or demon must be attributed to that context. That’s why vampires get warded off by crosses, the mere image of a pentagram is meant to invoke devil worship, and every possession outside of The Exorcist comes from some circle of Hell.
There are literally thousands of faiths in this world, none of which are verifiably more accurate than any other, and many of which predate Christianity by hundreds and thousands of years. So why do we default to it? Shouldn’t there be some way to wring some scares out of any of these countless other traditions?
Thankfully, Bishal Dutta is here to finally give us such an entry in the American mainstream, with It Lives Inside, which premiered at South by Southwest earlier this year and is now in wide release. Taking its cues and its scares from Hindu lore, the film offers a unique take on horror simply by existing. Is it the most frightening thing ever? No, but it does have a few important things to say while applying some of the more familiar genre tropes to this framework, and that alone makes it worth your time.
Megan Suri stars as Samidha, who goes by Sam. She’s a teenage girl in the suburbs who has spent her adolescence trying to assimilate with her more monochromatic classmates. This angers her mother Poorna (Neeru Bajwa), who wishes her daughter would do more than just pay lip service to their culture, while her father Inesh (Vik Sahay) is more lenient. Still, she’s a fairly well-adjusted young woman, getting good grades in school, acting on a first name basis with her favorite teacher, Joyce (Betty Gabriel), and crushing on the popular Russ (Gage Marsh).
The only dark spot in her life is her former best friend, Tamira (Mohana Krishnan), who has gone full goth in her appearance, is extremely withdrawn and talks to herself, and carries around a glass jar that looks like it’s full of ashes. When Tamira comes to Sam for help, claiming that the jar contains an evil spirit from their childhood folk stories, Sam slaps the jar out of Tamira’s hands, causing it to smash open on the ground. After Tamira has a panic attack, she’s abducted by an unseen force, with Sam having nightmares and visions about what might have happened to her.
Learning about the fate of another Indian kid who died recently, Sam begins to wonder if Tamira was telling the truth. Research with Joyce and her parents reveals legends about a demon known as a Pishach, which feeds on negative energy, devours souls, and can only be subdued by containing it in some kind of vessel. Interpreting the signs, Sam must fight a potential embodiment of pure evil in order to save her friend.
As mythological horror goes, this isn’t half bad. The script conveys the exposition in a clean, non-clunky manner, allowing the audience to grasp the concepts without pandering or condescension. Megan Suri gives a strong, convincing performance, particularly in the back half where her paranoia and night terrors make her increasingly twitchy and unfocused due to lack of sleep. You can see a transformation in the character that goes well beyond the makeup job. And most importantly, like many other great modern horror entries, the threat is largely a metaphorical cover for the real story, about a person trying to reconcile fealty to her heritage with the real-world need to fit in, both for high school and in a larger social and demographic context. There’s a great moment midway through where Sam has an argument with Poorna where she outright asks her mother why she and Inesh even bothered moving to America if Poorna was just going to live as a housewife and maintain a Hindu bubble away from the outside world. It’s that level of angst and insecurity that gives the Pishach its power, and Dutta gets the idea across quite well.
It’s also just a lot of fun to see a South Asian spin on the same clichés we see in almost every other genre film that proceeds along Christian lines. There’s a creepy house, tons of fire imagery, lore presented through artwork, writings, and artifacts, an emphasis on the color red, and the solution coming through religious ritual just to name a few. In the vast majority of these types of movies, these elements are beyond rote, but merely by being non-Christian, they become novel to a Western audience that just hasn’t been exposed to it.
Sadly, there are a few trappings this film can’t quite escape, no matter how noble the intentions. The story is padded out with several scenes where Sam and Poorna posture against one another without speaking, delaying the inevitable moment where Sam has to seek help from her mother’s traditions. A lot of the characterization outside of Sam, Poorna, and Tamira is decidedly one-note. It’s hard to tell what’s going on with Tamira (or if it even IS Tamira) in several scenes because the lighting obscures her face. Some of the practical effects are a good deal of fun (my favorite is having the hallway lights in Sam’s school be motion-activated, so we get to play with turning them on and off as the Pishach moves despite being invisible), but when Dutta has to rely on digital effects, most of them don’t work, especially the one major death scene and the full reveal of the Pishach, which is honestly more funny looking than scary.
That said, what really brings this all together is the directness with which the story is told. America is a melting pot, and it’s honestly amazing to me that it’s taken this long to get a horror movie that incorporates true multiculturalism into its frights. This is a very straightforward genre entry, more than competently presented (it doesn’t even trigger the “Jump Fail” protocol because there were only four jump scares, and three of them were justified by being legitimately surprising and not telegraphed), but just this one major thematic twist sets it apart simply because it hasn’t really been done before, which is both hopeful and slightly depressing. Still, like any good movie, it’s sparked an interest. I want to know more of these stories, and see them played out on screen. I want to see what other filmmakers can do with other religions. Give me Jewish horror, Shinto horror, Islamic horror, Buddhist horror, Zoroastrian horror if you like. A lot of people feel like The Bible is the greatest story ever told, and I won’t quibble with that. But it is just ONE story. There are so, so many more out there waiting to be told, and it’s more than refreshing to see someone take the initiative to step forward and open the door to new possibilities.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What other faiths would you like to see given the horror treatment? Would you eat raw meat for the well-being of others? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!