‘It Lives Inside’ SXSW review – A familiar American horror story distinguished by a unique cultural element

It’s no secret that American horror has historically been centered on white characters. Yet, like other stories coming out today, It Lives Inside acknowledges the fact that horror happens to everyone. And for one Indian American teenager, her terror is directly tied to the culture she denies and takes for granted. Director Bishal Dutta channels familiar cinematic styles, both visually and narratively, when manifesting this nightmarish rite of passage, but specific cultural flourishes ultimately make the film more unique.

Megan Suri‘s character Samidha doesn’t speak Hindi at home with her parents, and she conveniently forgets the school lunch her mother prepared for her. Teens are often embarrassed of their families and where they come from, but for Samidha, her discomfort toward her upbringing has dire consequences. The desire to fit in has left a former friend (Mohana Krishnan) to fend for herself as she safeguards a special jar and prevents its contents from ever escaping. As things tend to go in these kinds of films, the jar is broken along with Samidha’s state of blissful ignorance.

It Lives Inside is a polished-looking debut, but beneath that commercial and impeccable veneer lies a rich and chaotic story about cultural reconnection. For all intents and purposes, Samidha abandoned her Indian culture so she wouldn’t stand out as much as she already does in a predominantly white suburb. She tolerates questionable behavior from her white peers so long as she can be accepted into their club. American horror can be so disconnected to other kinds of peer pressure commonly experienced among young people, yet Dutta tackles the topic head on. It’s a potent allegory for what happens when struggling with cultural identity in an environment lacking in diversity.

The film admittedly borrows from A Nightmare on Elm Street, a classic horror film whose overarching story has little to do with race. The contained evil entity crossing over from myth to reality, the invisible murderer whose actions are anything but imaginary, and the overall aesthetic channels Wes Craven’s iconic film. The referencing may not play well to purists or anyone demanding utmost originality, however Dutta adds singular touches that help distinguish It Lives Inside.

On its own as a horror film, It Lives Inside doesn’t innovate as much as its enlivens. Teenagers battling a monster in a town unaware of its own otherworldly threat isn’t unheard of, especially since the advent of Stranger Things. It’s when Dutta slightly but significantly adjusts the standard formula that the story plays better. Adults not only take an active role in the conflict, they are supportive of the imperiled youth. Samidha’s mother (Neeru Bajwa) isn’t trying to diminish her daughter’s agency or apply logic to what others might construe as delusion. On the contrary, her drive to help is refreshing when remembering how parents of horror yesteryear regularly leave their kids in the lurch. Then there’s the friendship component that, thankfully, isn’t abandoned by the conclusion.

This film won’t win points for sheer originality, but even more it packs a magnificently designed and realized foe, a positive family element, and a talented delivery method. Many others have used horror as a lens which coming-of-age stories are told. However, few in recent years have included a cultural journey as healing as It Lives Inside.

It Lives Inside premiered at South by Southwest 2023, and it will be distributed by NEON sometime later this year.

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