It Lives Inside [Fantasia International Film Festival Review]

It Lives Inside is the story of two Indian-American girls. Samidha (Megan Suri) and Tamira (Mohana Krishnan) used to be best friends. Then things changed. Sam started expanding her social circle, whereas Tamira became withdrawn and moody. The two are forced back into each other’s orbits when a demonic spirit touches both their lives. Arguably the best movie I saw at the 2023 Fantasia International Film Festival, director Bishal Dutta’s horror tale expertly mixes first-class scares with a depth-filled story. NEON will give it a regular theatrical release on September 22.

Sam and Tamira are pretty much the only Indian girls in their high school. The former has tried – and continues trying – to assimilate herself, to the chagrin of her mother Poorna (Neeru Bajwa), who prefers she adhere closer to tradition. Part of Sam’s efforts to fit in entail attempting to get her peers to look beyond her heritage. That includes distancing herself from Tamira. The task becomes harder when her one-time friend comes in search of help from the only person who might understand. She holds a jar that she claims has a “monster” trapped inside. That monster is potentially on the verge of escaping.

Sam blows it off until extremely creepy events begin taking place around her. The entity, she learns, is a “Pishach,” a flesh-eating demon in Hindu and Buddhist mythology. Once unleashed from the jar, it abducts Tamira and torments Sam, targeting the people around her. Identifying a way to stop it will require delving into cultural myths and legends. Her white friends, in other words, will be incapable of assisting. A teacher, Joyce (Get Out’s Betty Gabriel), intervenes upon realizing Sam is troubled.

A new type of evil entity is a major element that makes It Lives Inside effective. I’d never heard of a Pishach before, which gave it the power to unnerve me in a way zombies and vampires generally don’t anymore. What the Pishach does and how it does it will be left for you to discover on your own. Suffice it to say, the movie has two of the scariest sequences I’ve witnessed recently. One involves a swing set, the other a school locker. Dutta creates an unsettling mood throughout, then tosses in moments of extreme terror to convey the stakes for the young women. You get a palpable sense of how much danger they’re in.

Driving the story from underneath is a thoughtful exploration of culture. Sam struggles with her identity, finding herself too Indian to gain total acceptance from her Caucasian classmates, yet not Indian enough to satisfy her mom. Tamira’s jar forces her to take a harder look at the beliefs of her background. She has to find herself in the process. The film ties its theme together inextricably with the horror so that one continually compliments the other.

At the center is Megan Suri, giving a performance that instantly earns our compassion. The actress flawlessly conveys Sam’s struggle with her self-perception, as well as the fear her character experiences from the Pishach. She’s a fantastic heroine in a movie that is relentlessly spine-chilling.

out of four

It Lives Inside is rated PG-13 for terror, violent content, bloody images, brief strong language, and teen drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.