Major spoilers ahead for It Lives Inside. You’ve been warned.
Back in June, I wrote a review for The Boogeyman, the most famous monster in all of human history, which exists in all parts of the world. And now with It Lives Inside, we get to see the creature through a different culture’s lens.
The story begins in a darkened house, where we hear sounds of struggle and see a couple of bloody, dead bodies lying in a hallway. Then a man collapses on the floor, his body seemingly burned from the inside out. A jar he was holding rolls out of his hand, full of black dust.
The next morning, we meet Samidha (Megan Suri). While getting ready for school, she removes her arm hair and takes a few selfies, making sure to filter them to make herself look — well, less brown. Her mother, Poorna (Neeru Bajwa), has a traditional breakfast ready for her which Samidha (who prefers to be called “Sam”) couldn’t be less interested in.
Poorna reminds Sam that she needs help preparing food for the puja (prayer ritual) gathering they’ll be hosting that weekend. But of course, Sam would rather be doing anything else. The tension is thick between mother and daughter as Sam rebels against her mother’s insistence on adhering to tradition. Her father, Inesh (Vik Sahay), comes home from working the night shift. He’s tired but has a much easier rapport with Sam, being more willing to accept Sam’s wanting to be a “normal” American kid.
Sam goes to school and hangs out with her friend (Paige Shaw), who kinda treats Sam more like a favorite pet, telling Sam to say things in Hindi so she can record them and post them on TikTok. But Sam’s okay with putting up with it, especially when she gets invited to a kickback that weekend by Russ (Gage Marsh), the guy she’s got a huge crush on. Then all attention turns to another girl named Tamira (Mohana Krishnan), who walks into class late. She’s a friend of Sam’s (or more like a former friend). Sam wants to distance herself because Tamira’s, well, weird. And she looks terrible, all unkempt and gaunt, clutching a jar — the same jar we saw in the first scene.
Their teacher, Joyce Dixon (Betty Gabriel), whom both girls are close to (apparently close enough that they refer to her by her first name, which is weird, but whatever), asks Sam if she knows what’s going on with Tamira. Sam doesn’t know, and when Joyce suggests that she check on her, Sam’s less than enthusiastic about the idea. She’d rather not associate with the class freak any more than she has to. Meanwhile, Tamira walks home with a blood-soaked backpack. Turns out she’s got a dead animal in it, which she carves up and drops into the jar.
The next day, Tamira finds Sam in the locker room after gym class. Sam’s uncomfortable talking to her but tries to be polite. Tamira shows her the jar with Hindi words scratched into the glass. Tamira tells Sam that all the stories they were told as kids about the Pishach (a flesh-eating demon) they’re all true. Turns out that’s what’s in the jar. She tells Sam she needs her help, but Tamira’s acting like a crazy person, seeing, hearing and reacting to terrible things that only she can see. Fed up with her weirdness, Sam knocks the jar out of her hands. It smashes on the floor and the black dust goes everywhere. Uh-oh.
Tamira runs away in a panic, dropping a book with the initials “KC” on it. Sam chases after her, but Tamira’s in full-blown freakout mode. Sam tells her to stay put while she goes to get Joyce. But while she’s gone, something invisible grabs Tamira by the hair and drags her away.
A search begins for Tamira, with her mother filing a missing person report. (As an aside, that’s about all we ever see of the cops or other neighbors getting involved.) And that weekend at the puja, everyone prays for Tamira’s safe return. Sam overhears someone talking about another family, the Choudharys, whose son died supposedly via suicide not long ago. Sam asks her father about them, and Inesh just says when the family emigrated to America, they seemed to be in trouble, like they were “running from something.” The son, Karan (as in KC), had a promising future before he died.
Sam decides she’s had enough of tradition and changes clothes, ready to leave. While her mother objects, Inesh overrules her and lets Sam go. Sam goes over to school and looks through KC’s journal, which is filled with scrawled writings in Hindi that she can’t read and gruesome drawings of the Pishach and the many souls it’s eaten. Sam then heads for the kickback and finds Russ. She shows him the journal and, expressing her concern for both KC and Tamira, Russ offers to drive her over to the Choudhary house.
Sam and Russ look around and find a terrifying painting on the wall of the Pishach either coming out of or going into a man’s mouth, surrounded by crowds of other damned souls. That night, Sam has a nightmare (or is it?) where she sees the glowing eyes of something watching her from the darkness of her closet.
The next morning, Poorna’s angry with Sam for leaving the puja. Sam makes a shockingly disrespectful comment back, asking her mom why she bothered to come to America if all she was gonna do was cook and clean. Oof. Low blow. Sam leaves and meets up with Russ back at the Choudhary house, sitting outside on the swing set. She explains to Russ that she and Tamira were best friends when they were little. But once they got to high school, she says Tamira just “wouldn’t grow up.” And after the incident with KC, she says everyone would just stare at her like she was a freak, simply because she was Indian too.
Russ and Sam share a couple of sweet kisses, but then Sam hears something calling out to her, luring her into the house. While Sam’s distracted, the Pishach attacks Russ. His screams snap Sam out of her trance and she runs back out only to find Russ violently thrashing around in the swing chains. Then something invisible takes a bite out of him before he collapses, dead. When the police arrive, Sam can only see the accusing eyes of all the onlookers, staring at her and her parents.
While all this is going on, Tamira wakes up to find herself trapped in a dingy basement where the Pishach’s keeping her, feeding on her gradually. Sam goes back to school and Joyce expresses her concern, seeing Sam looking just as bad as Tamira now. Sam asks for her help finding out what exactly is doing this to her. Joyce looks it up and tells her what she found out about the Pishach, that it’s a flesh-eating demon that feeds on fear and negative energy.
Terrified, Sam finally goes to her mother for help. Poorna tells Sam about the Pishach, how it isolates its victims and keeps them alive for a short time before killing them — seven days, to be exact (The Ring (2002), anyone?). Which means that Tamira’s running out of time. Poorna says the only thing they could do is summon the Pishach and then trap it in a container. Poorna also says that sometimes swamis actually offer themselves up as vessels. Sam also shows Poorna KC’s journal, and Poorna recognizes the Hindi writing as a prayer to ward off the Pishach.
So Poorna and Sam prepare their own puja, cooking a meal to use as an offering. Poorna also says that anyone who tries to help the Pishach’s intended victim becomes a victim, too, hence what happened to poor Russ, and now Joyce. While she’s heading out from school to go to Sam’s, the Pishach starts attacking her, chasing her around the empty building. Joyce finally takes shelter by squeezing herself into a locker.
Poorna and Sam make their offering and recite the prayer, Poorna teaching Sam how to pronounce the Hindi. But when the Pishach is summoned, it rejects the offerings and just as Inesh arrives home, it attacks him and then Poorna. Sam realizes that she’s the only one who can trap the Pishach and save everyone, so she grabs a jar before running out.
She arrives at the Choudhary house and finds Tamira barely alive in the basement. The Pishach finds them and reveals itself in all its gruesome glory. Sam recites the prayer, but it’s not until Tamira awakens and joins her in praying that it has any effect. The Pishach shrinks in on itself; however, it still has to be contained. Having lost the jar, Sam realizes that the only option is to offer herself. The Pishach becomes the black dust again and Sam breathes it in.
Cut to a year later. Sam’s having dinner with her parents, Tamira and Joyce. They all share knowing looks, all of them aware that the Pishach is still there with them, living inside Sam. They all say the prayer, and then give the Pishach its offering: red meat. Being vegetarian, it’s difficult for Sam to eat, but she does it anyway, knowing she must. Everyone looks nervous until she swallows the meat, and nothing bad happens. Relieved, everyone continues on with dinner, happily chatting away.
Sam and Tamira take a walk afterwards, their bonds reforged and even stronger now. Sam tells Tamira that she’ll be helping her mom prepare for the next puja, and she’ll see her then. Tamira gives Sam a hug, both of them knowing how different the world is for them now. Sam smiles at Tamira as she leaves, but once she’s gone, the look on Sam’s face changes. She feels the Pishach inside her, contained. Barely. And the heavy burden shows on Sam’s face, pushing tears out of her eyes, making us wonder just how long she can keep it in check.
There are several stories going on in It Lives Inside: the monster movie, the coming-of-age story, and the story of the struggle children of immigrants have, to fit in with a largely white-dominated American culture without completely rejecting family traditions. Being the child of immigrants myself, I found that part of the flick rang incredibly familiar and true. I could sympathize with both Sam and Tamira, knowing what it’s like to be the brown kid everyone gawks at.
But as a parent, I could also sympathize with Poora and Inesh, both of whom also struggled, not only with fitting in themselves, but also in trying to figure out how best to guide their child in assimilating without completely losing what makes them unique.
While director Bishal Dutta handles this aspect of the flick with a skilled hand, it unfortunately ends up competing with the horror story instead of successfully co-existing with it. It Lives Inside also doesn’t really do anything new with its monster, the Pishach. Dutta uses the same bag of tricks that have been used in countless other horror flicks — the glowing eyes in the dark, the invisible thing that grabs somebody by the hair, leaves bite marks and invisibly trips motion-sensor lights.
This isn’t to say that the tricks don’t work. There’s a reason why they’re standard fare. It’s the kind of stuff that just instantly triggers the fear instinct, no matter how many times you see it. And Megan Suri, Mohana Krishnan and Betty Gabriel (for her small part) do a terrific job of selling their terror. But the creature itself, while certainly grotesque enough in a The Thing (1982) kinda way, isn’t particularly memorable.
I’m reminded of another flick that took the standard exorcism tale and portrayed it through another culture. The Possession (2012) used Judaism’s Dybbuk, a similar type demon to the Pishach, which gave the story a unique and intriguing angle without ever forgetting that it was horror, first and foremost. I wish It Lives Inside could have found that same balance.
While it works okay enough as it is, my hope is that if Dutta gets to make a sequel, that he’ll really bring the horror next time. Hopefully, he can give us something that truly terrifies and sticks with us, as opposed to just generally creeping us out for an hour and a half but then forgetting it a week later.
Directed by: Bishal Dutta
Written by: Bishal Dutta, Ashish Mehta
Release date: September 22, 2023
Run time: 1 hr, 39 min