There’s something hungry and violent about shame. As the feeling within a person works to efface, it simultaneously, to the horror of its host, works to make itself known, through a blushing of the cheeks, through curious retaliation. It Lives Inside interestingly charts this paradoxical movement of shame.
Written and directed by Bishal Dutta, the film follows Indian-American teen Samidha (Megan Suri), who is living a relatively stable life in a white suburb. Well liked by her peers, Samidha, who prefers to go by Sam, excels in school. The social teen is much like any other American teen — she wants to hang out with friends, and reluctantly helps out at home with her mother’s (Neeru Bajwa) puja (prayer rituals) plans. It emerges that though Sam is honest about her identity, she does feel shame about being Indian — she doesn’t take homemade lunches to school, sniffs her clothes when she leaves home, making sure she doesn’t smell of her mother’s aromatic cooking, and speaks English with her parents, refusing to converse in Hindi with them.
Things turn terrifying when Tamira (Mohana Krishnan), a girl Sam used to be close with as toddlers, turns to Sam for help. Tamira found a jar at the home of another Indian boy who committed suicide a year prior; the jar contained a demon that latched onto Tamira, needing to be fed, needing to be cared for, lest it emerge and kill everyone she loves. When Tamira goes missing, Sam unwittingly gets custody of the demon, which grows stronger and stronger as it feeds on her shame about her identity.
It Lives Inside is entertaining and unpretentious, adding to our folkloric landscape a new kind of fearsome monster fueled by and feeding on a much-neglected human aspect: shame. It Lives Inside is compelling and makes a star of its complex lead, and ultimately it offers a tender look at something oft experienced but seldom explored in horrors: the South Asian immigrant experience in the Western world. While it certainly isn’t groundbreaking, this film is shot through with an understanding love in the face of an unrelenting horror; it will definitely, horrifyingly, fallibly expand our understanding of how horror moves, follows, and resides.
The film excels in small moments. Suri delivers a terrific performance as the confused Sam making sense of her identity, working to show her parents that, growing up in the West, it’s impossible to not be touched by the culture, it’s impossible to not exist at the intersection of her two cultures. Samidha’s characterization is unique, and she cuts a compelling final girl who realizes that only she carries the answers to the puzzle of her identity, to the quelling of her shame, ultimately the ability to destroy the monster that hounds her. Suri’s Sam is a brilliant anchor in this film that, along with the film’s introduction of a previously-unexplored mythos, crafts an interesting tale.
That being said, this film does lack a personality. It’s a pitfall that many immigrant stories unfortunately fall into, that of attempting to encapsulate every aspect of the immigrant experience so that nothing gets left out. In attempting to solve the issue of the monster at its core, It Lives Inside often tries to cover all its bases when it comes to the immigrant experience — the monster feeds off shame, but it also feeds off loneliness, it also feeds off anger; all emotions that it then requires of Samidha that she work to massage, to solve, meaning the action often gets distracted from the horror of the monster.
For example, Samidha and Tamira stop being friends because of Samidha’s shame, and the film focuses on this in the same breath as it focuses on Samidha’s relationship with her mother, which is also fraught because of shame. The film tries to solve the complexities of all these various relationships not by realizing that they are rooted in shame, but by trying to assuage the varied feelings (which shame actually has led to) that caused Samidha to feel this way. The film doesn’t work to root and locate Samidha’s motivations in shame, which the monster feeds off of, and this is why it lacks a personality.
The film frames Samidha as someone who feels ashamed of her identity, as someone running from it and toward whiteness; instead of exploring this shame, hewing to it wholeheartedly and meaningfully, instead of diving into the contours of shame and roving over and through its dark and contorting ways, the film instead and hastily, nearly superficially, covers all of the other feelings shame leads to, leading to a rushed atmosphere. For the casual viewer, it doesn’t seem clear exactly what the monster is feeding off of. A lack of personality ultimately distracts from the protagonist and her battle against the monster, from the monster itself.
The effect of this amorphousness is that there are moments in the film where we seem to lose the plot, we seem to lose sight of the monster, what its motivations are, and what needs to be done to destroy it. The effect of the film’s attempts to explore all the other quagmires that shame leads to, instead of focusing on its unique complexities and the way it coils within a person, is that the film loses its heft, becomes less a horror and more a coming of age tale.
Still, and though this film is rough around the edges, it does present certain horror elements that enrich the genre, which opens up avenues for further explorations of rich folklore and mythos that Western horror has direly neglected. This film serves as a great bedrock and inspiration for future horrors about the immigrant experience.