“It Lives Inside” utilizes horror to explore the schism of cultural identity via the immigrant experience. [Fantasia International Film Festival]

Immigrant stories are connected to the fabric of America as it exists today. Whether they are just arriving, first generation, second, or beyond, what binds the majority of immigrants together is that they (including myself) are not from here and have each faced a tipping point where the community and culture we leave behind is discarded or assimilated. This is a critical aspect of writer/director Bishal Dutta’s It Lives Inside, a horror film that places its protagonist on a violent trajectory with an aspect of their culture they’ve cast aside, requiring them to come to grips with all sides of themselves or perish. When It Lives Inside leans into its specificity, it’s positively terrifying; however, there’s a persistence to utilize the tropes of the genre that proves reductive to the whole.


Mohana Krishnan as Tamira in IT LIVES INSIDE. Photo courtesy of NEON.

Sam (Megan Suri) just wants to to fit in. She’s more interested in finding the right filter for her selfie than she is assisting her mother Poorna (Neeru Bajwa) with preparations for an annual cultural celebration, does her best to manage the microagressions from her mostly well-meaning friends, and manages her crush on Russ (Gage Marsh). But when a former childhood friend, Tamira (Mohana Krishnan), comes to her seeking help, telling her that the stories of their childhood are true, Sam rejects these claims and turns her back, unknowingly dooming her friend to incredible torment. Even worse, more incidents begin to occur, forcing Sam to confront not just the creature that may have taken her friend, but the active dissonance within herself for, if she is not whole, she will not survive.

More often than not, what makes a horror film work is the connection to actual fears in the world. It’s absolutely disturbing to watch someone get their skin flayed, but it’s more likely that one is going to find themselves accused of horrors when one is viewed as an outsider. You think the suburbs are more tranquil than urban areas? Here’s a slasher. Gentrification threatening to take apart your neighborhood? Have a Candyman. Think that cutting yourself off from your whole self will make you less vulnerable? Enjoy this demon that only *your* community can keep locked away. The choice here, made via Dutta’s script out of the story created by he and Ashish Mehta, directly gets to the internal disquiet that comes from children of immigrants, straddling the line between valuing the culture and tradition of our families but also wanting to fit in with those we encounter daily. For instance, Sam’s given name is Samidha, shortened by choice to appear more acceptable by her classmates, an Americanized version of the name chosen by her parents as representative of their culture. The script makes a point to show that her father Inesh (Vik Sahhay) seems to understand, even calls her the preferred name while speaking English, whereas Poorna mostly speaks Hindi and refuses to say anything other than Samidha. The familial strife is used perfectly by Dutta as a means of creating natural barriers for Sam to gain the assistance she needs because her parents only initially view the reactions to the struggles she faces as little more than teenage rebellion. A cinematic adaption of the very fights immigrant parents face at one point or another. In this case, Sam appears to be first generation immigrant, though it’s unclear through the course of the film if she was born in the United States of America or if her parents immigrated when she was very young. Either way, she doesn’t see herself as a child of India, but of America, and that schism of self-identification is a rich texture to derive a horror tale.

It Lives Inside Fantasia 2023

Megan Suri as Samidha in IT LIVES INSIDE. Photo courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival 2023.

Though I cannot speak to the authenticity of the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) experience, as a third generation Jewish immigrant, I couldn’t help but think of Keith Thomas’s The Vigil (2021), which similarly incorporated religious iconography and myth, as well as self-identification to create a horror tale. In that film, as I recognized the symbols of my people and upbringing, seeing items not traditionally viewed as weapons being utilized as both shield and weapon, a strange excitement and elation formed. I suspect that a similar reaction will occur with audience members who are part of or far more well-versed in the traditions Sam’s family is connected to. As it relates to It Lives Inside, I also took a similar amusement in seeing Sam doing research on the glyphs and imagery in order to try to figure out what’s happening around her, not because there’s something funny about a lack of knowledge in one’s culture, but because (as someone who’s not as connected to his own culture as an adult as I’d like due to lack of interest as a child) it speaks to just how far from the tradition Sam is in a very realistic way. In both of these instances, it’s clear that Dutta took from their own experience as a first-generation immigrant, weaving in organic elements of the immigrant experience. There are plenty of films which speak to the European Christian faith, using their totems and practices to dispel supernatural entities in places local (America) or abroad, but there are too few located in America which do the same for others. With It Lives Inside, Dutta not only creates a horror film from and for MENA audiences, he does so where the horror isn’t just the force Sam finds herself against, but the very real battle of identity which immigrant children struggle with all the time. Thus, even when that battle comes to Sam’s doorstep, like the slasher trying to invade suburbia or the xenomorph bursting forth unexpectedly from the chest of your friend, there is no safety to be found, except within yourself. But how do you defeat something when you are a house divided?

For all of the good ideas within the text, the execution only partially lives up to it. In one instance, there’s a bit of brilliance on the part cinematographer Matthew Lynn (Everything Is Free) who opted to shoot a scene by swinging the camera between victim and assailant rather than using cuts to depict the decreasing distance between the two. The impact of this choice makes one feel the pressure as the assailant gets closer, the victim struggling to get away, almost as if there’s an inevitability to what’s occurring before us. Using a more traditional approach of cuts would certainly convey a similar shortening of distance, but it would lack the intensity that swinging the camera back and forth does. The choice creates a sensation of the audience watching the attack in real time, each second more precious than the last. This is a brilliant idea as it adds tension to a sequence that’s, especially for the characters, particularly vulnerable. In another scene, there’s a simple use of dark space and a mechanical gag to create a jump scare, wherein eyes gleam from an open closet only for the doors to slam open when the lights in the room turn on. It’s elegant in its simple design and execution. Unfortunately, the majority of what occurs around it follows the well-trodden path of horror film jump scares to the point where you could create a countdown to the next one and hit the mark. The predictability undercuts the execution, thereby putting all the pressure on the narrative elements and performances to keep the audience dialed in. Both of which are strong, gratefully, but all they do is keep the teeth from dulling entirely.


Megan Suri as Samidha in IT LIVES INSIDE. Photo courtesy of NEON.

A horror film without sharp edges doesn’t mean that it’s an unworthy journey. There’s plenty to chew on, giving the film resonance beyond the immediate entertainment factor. Its view is specific and narrow, yet there’s familiarity enough that other immigrants will find themselves nodding along at the plight of all the characters, not just Sam who is trying to find her way in a complicated world. Especially when one considers what the supernatural entity is that she is battling, what it represents in opposition to the modern world, recognizing that it lives inside all of us, regardless of culture or faith, is particularly haunting. Fear knows no borders, no culture, no community. We have names for it in every language, and we do have a name for those who stand against it and Sam is officially a final girl, a hero, to combat it. Impressively, her success or failure is entirely up to her and whether she knows who she is; a particularly brilliant move by Dutta in tying it back to the themes of the film. How well one regards that choice is up to the beholder.

Screening during Fantasia International Film Festival 2023 for its Quebec premiere.
In theaters September 22nd, 2023.

For more information, head either to the official It Lives Inside Fantasia webpage or NEON webpage.

Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Categories: In Theaters, Reviews

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