"It Lives Inside" Can't Escape Orientalist Horror
The tropes catch it.
Mysterious, evil, more or less explicitly Orientalist others are a staple of horror films from Dracula to the Mummy and beyond. Bishal Dutta’s It Lives Inside doesn’t exactly exorcise those tropes. Instead, it uses them ambivalently, in some ways cosigning Hollywood’s default racist anxieties even as it champions South Asian culture and identity. It’s a conflicted horror film about the conflicted experiences of immigration and assimilation.
The conflicted second-generation immigrant at the center of the story is Samidha (Megan Suri), an Indian-American high school student trying hard to play up the American bit and play down the Indian. She’s hindered in her efforts to blend in by her mother Poorna (Neeru Bajwa), who wants her to be more mindful of her heritage, and by her former best friend, Tamira (Mohanna Krishnan), who wanders around school clutching a jar and muttering about demonic forces. It’s hard to convince the whitebread American kids you’re just like them when there’s a walking stereotype of Third World superstition in the background.
Since this is a horror film, you’ve probably guessed that Tamira’s demon worries are all too real, and once the thing (inevitably) gets out of the jar, it starts to haunt Sam. In particular, it targets her friendly white boyfriend Russ (Gage Marsh) for terrifying and vivid death. Demonic Indian entities frown on interracial relationships, apparently.
There’s at least a hint that Poorna isn’t so into Sam’s white friends either, and one of the movie’s most effective sequences is a dream in which Poorna and the Pishach merge, so that Sam is chased around the house by her mother, who moves as if her joints are unhinged or broken. The Pishach becomes, in this moment at least, a manifestation of Poorna’s anxieties about assimilation; the demon is trying to pull Sam back to her Indianness.
Indianness isn’t just a threat to Sam. The demon was brought to America by an Indian family, and is now moving from one immigrant family to the next, killing bystanders along the way. That comes uncomfortably close to reproducing narratives of immigrants as infectious disease carriers.
The movie isn’t anti-immigrant in geneeral, though. Megan Suri as Sam is charismatic and sympathetic; she’s got large, expressive eyes that draw you in to her hopes, her nervousness, her uncertainty, and finally her terror. She and her mom and Tamira have to join together to reconnect to their traditions and defeat the demon. Community and heritage are both the problem and the solution; the evil ethnic past haunting Sam can only be confronted with the traditions and relationships rooted in that past.
You could see that as a story of re-appropriation and reclamation. The problem is that—unlike in, say, Get Out, or the 2021 Candyman, or in Tananarive Due’s novel The Reformatory—there’s little effort to link the horrors to racism or prejudice. Sam’s classmates make a few racist comments; her family is the target of some unpleasant white stares. But the Pishach itself is firmly rooted in South Asian heritage; it’s not a result of or response to American prejudice or violence in any obvious way. Instead, all the violence comes from Indianness, which can be repressed through ritual, but can’t really be defeated. If you wanted to take a message from it, the moral seems to be something like, South Asian people can never fit in, and if they try they will inflict horrific harm on their own communities and on white people as well.
I doubt that’s what Bishal Dutta wanted to say. Horror tropes have their own logic built on fear of outsiders, though, and to turn that around requires more pushback, and more invention than It Lives Inside has mustered. The film has a potentially intriguing theme and some solid performances, but, like the Alien-on-a-budget monster itself, when you see the whole thing it’s hard not to be disappointed.