What annoys me so much about Bishal Dutta’s directorial debut is that it had real potential. Set around teenage Samidha (‘Sam’ to her micro-aggressive white friends) getting caught in the crosshairs of a demon who feeds off negative energy, this movie seemed set to put a refreshing spin on its derivative plot by casting well-worn territory through the lens of the Indian diaspora. Maybe that’s why I’ve been excited about it since first seeing the trailer; it’s thrilling to see new voices in horror innovating on classic formulas. But while Dutta’s film had some very intriguing possibilities, it ultimately fell short of realizing its full potential.
Throughout the movie, there’s a tension around Sam being more than willing to shed her cultural background and assimilate into the suburbs: she doesn’t bring friends home, where they could see her mom cooking traditional meals, she avoids the only other Indian girl in school and speaks as little Hindi as possible. Despite Dutta setting up all these compelling elements, we never see them come together. When the demon kills a popular (white) guy and Sam’s the only person there when it happens, no one suspects her. No allegations are made, and no underlying racism bursts forth. This is doubly confusing since the demon relies on making people feel isolated—what’s more isolating than a demon framing you for murder? Maybe there’s a director’s cut where Dutta has more time to meditate on these types of things, but what matters is what’s in theaters, and that version just feels half-baked. If you’re going to gesture towards racial politics, make time to really engage with what those ideas mean for the character and how they connect to class, gender etc. It’s as if Dutta wanted to explore deeper, but didn’t know how. I also think the visuals could’ve been a bit more well-done.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved the practical effects! The monster had a fun design, and there was some nice costuming; but I hated some of the cinematographic choices. In some moments, the camera moves for the sake of moving, which seems amateurish. I also think certain scenes relied too much on monochromatic red to build tone or mood. Overall, the visuals here are pretty average, if not downright predictable, and that’s disappointing for a film I had such high expectations for. Like all horror, I think the editing was well done, quickening the pace but also letting us sit in silent tension for just long enough that we bristle on the edge of our seat. That use of silence was really noticeable throughout, and shows great control and restraint as far as the sound design is concerned. Despite those few pros, I think what really carried this movie wasn’t the visuals, certainly not the writing, but the acting.
Megan Suri is outstanding as Samidha; she’s not only mastered the art of screaming, but communicates teenage disdain and regret with incredible sensitivity. Her expressions are wonderfully controlled and bring a ton of vulnerability to the protagonist. We can’t help but root for this character. I also think Neeru Bajwa was phenomenal as Sam’s mom, Poorna, expertly capturing the desperation of a mother drifting away from her daughter with no clue how to bridge the gap. Despite her rocky relationship with Sam, we never doubt Poorna’s intentions for her daughter, and that’s due to the powerhouse acting from Bajwa. This is acting at its most compassionate. I’d also be remiss to forget Mohana Krishnan’s portrayal of Tamira, Sam’s childhood best friend. Krishnan brings enough frantic energy to Tamira’s literally-haunted inner life to chill anyone’s bones. In her performance, we see exhaustion and paranoid desperation spiral together to devastating effect. These actors are proof that horror’s one of the most overlooked genres when it comes to award season, but not even their enormous talents can make up for the material they were given.
Like I said, I was very excited for this movie. Even as I watched it, I kept wanting to come to you with more positive thoughts; but Dutta simply refused to capitalize on the opportunities he gave himself. The end could be seen as a way of expressing how immigrating necessarily strips us of some intangible thing, how we'll always be haunted by the ghosts of our past lives, past selves; but cheap scares were prioritized over setting this up properly. It Lives Inside promises to give you a commentary on the immigrant experience, on the soul of America itself, yet the pieces never quite come together, so all that’s left is a hollow shell of what could’ve been. If you enjoyed this review, consider subscribing to the blog’s Patreon by clicking here! For just $3 per month, you can keep this blog ad-free and independent. There are also some cool benefits for those who choose to support the blog including: suggesting which movies I review, getting personalized movie recommendations, access to free giveaways and more!