Not long ago, I visited my lovely Aunt Mary. At the end of a wonderful reunion, she sent me home with a keepsake book and a Mason jar filled with her scrumptious homemade apple butter. The book is a treasure, and the apple butter has graced many slices of toast, leaving a nearly empty glass vessel that I think I’ll keep around … you know, just for safekeeping.
I mean, after watching director Bishal Dutta’s inaugural entry in the horror genre, It Lives Inside, I just may have another use for that jar.
You see, Hindu mythology tells us certain demons must be contained. And in this creepy flick, there is one demon – a Pishacha – whose momentary home is the aforementioned Mason jar. Not mine, of course, but the one possessed by Tamira (Mohanna Krishnan), former best friend of Samidha (Megan Suri).
Tamira and Sam are high school students, the latter working hard to leave her Indian cultural roots behind, much to the chagrin of mother Poorna (the beautiful Neera Bajwa). Father Inesh (Vik Sahay) is more understanding of their daughter’s desire to “fit in.” To that end, Sam has developed several American friends in her quest for assimilation, while Tamira remains a school oddball – bedraggled, continuously late for class, non-talkative, always carting around that murky Mason jar.
Tamira’s perceived issues are enough that a friendly teacher, Joyce (wonderfully portrayed by Betsy Gabriel, who was equally wonderful in Get Out), asks Sam to intervene, though Sam isn’t having it. She’s fitting in, you might remember. But while their friendship has all but dissolved, Tamira clings to Sam as one whose Indian roots might beget an understanding of her plight.
And that brings us to a locker room encounter between the two. Tamira, clutching the jar, wants to reveal its contents, soliciting a “kasam,” or promise, that Sam will believe her. But when Tamira tries to explain, an incredulous Sam knocks the jar to the floor, shattering it. Tamira sees something Sam can’t see, then runs from the room and soon disappears.
All of this has led to a rather slow-paced but intriguing setup for what’s to come. Sam enlists would-be boyfriend Russ (Gage Marsh) in a search for Tamira, which ends in his – at the time – inexplicable death. Soon Sam is having all-too-real nightmares that include visions of Pishacha, a devourer of souls that feeds on fear and negative energy. She decides to ask Joyce for help, but soon the demon – in some of the more terrifying scenes – is on the teacher’s trail.
It takes a reconciliation with her mother to get Sam on the right track, though a final encounter with the demon is mostly a solo affair. No spoilers here.
It Lives Inside, just released, was produced by some of the same folks behind Jordan Peele’s marvelous Get Out. It’s not quite up to his standards, but it is, nonetheless, a cinematic success – enough so that it was an audience favorite at SXSW.
Taken in context, it’s the kind of horror film that targets highbrow viewers. It’s not particularly gory nor does it stack up bodies from beginning to end. In fact, it’s largely a parable about cultural roots and how changing your stripes is neither desirable nor always possible.
But that doesn’t mean this isn’t scary. In fact, I was worried the demon – on initial darkened sightings – would look like a cross between a T-Rex and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. But when it’s revealed in all its glory, the Pishacha is uniquely frightening. The whole film has an eerie atmosphere, brought to life by believable dialogue and a stellar cast. There really isn’t a bad actor in the bunch, though Gabriel’s performance stands tallest.
In plain English (or in Hindi, as the case may be), this is 90-plus minutes well spent.
Dutta, along with co-writer Ashish Mehta, won’t make a mint off of It Lives Inside, but with projects certain to follow, they’re going to be living inside a much higher tax bracket.