The Pishacha, a Hindu demon that feeds on negative energy, sounds like a promising movie monster to set alongside the sub-Saharan apeth or Mami Wata (from respectively, Remi Weekes’s His House and Nikyatu Jusu’s Nanny, both 2022), paranormal entities that have surfaced in recent horror films concerning immigrant experience in the west. Sam (short for Samhida) and Tamira are the only two Indian American students at their high school, where Sam’s yearning to fit in with her classmates leads to her repudiating the mother who insists on speaking to her in Hindi (Sam stubbornly talks back to her in English) and rejecting her former best friend, who mysteriously vanishes soon after a jar she carries with her is broken. Unfortunately, despite Megan Suri’s best efforts in the role, Sam’s sole personality trait is this desire to distance herself from her roots, so that it becomes hard to care whether this one-note character fits in or not, especially when her experiences are so repetitive, the camera repeatedly lingering on her terrified gaze while the director takes his time in showing us what she’s seeing – which up until the film’s climax is hardly anything.
The Pishacha, on the other hand, is so ill-defined that it’s impossible to guess which horror ‘rules’ it’s adhering to; one minute it’s hogging the darkness, a pair of gleaming eyes, the next it’s attacking someone in broad daylight. One minute it hammers at a closed door, the next it bursts through a brick wall. Sometimes it’s invisible, like the Predator; on other occasions it advances towards Sam on all fours, like Sadako from Ring (1998). The very title, It Lives Inside, is generic to the point of blandness, shuffling three words that are staple signifiers of the genre – as in It (1990 and 2017), It Lives Again (1978), Inside (2016), and so on. In much the same way, director and co-writer Bishal Dutta shuffles a full house of horror clichés to not very gripping effect.
Dutta, who himself moved from India to North America at the age of four, deserves kudos for drawing on what, to Westerners, is an unfamiliar mythology. It’s a shame, though, that he couldn’t have made his characters more than ciphers (Betty Gabriel invests her peripheral sympathetic teacher role with more nuance than it deserves) or played around more with two of the story’s most interesting elements: placating the demon with a feast of delicious-looking Indian cuisine is an intriguing notion, as is the idea of having to trap it in a vessel, like a genie. Needless to say, a glass jar is not the most practical receptacle, in the circumstances.
► It Lives Inside is in UK cinemas now.