"It Lives Inside" opens with an unnerving sequence. Hot red lights and dark hallways lead to an immolated body lying on a basement floor. There are no clues as to what we are seeing or how it will fit in with the rest of the film. Screams mix with a building score until the tension is finally broken with a title card.
Written and directed by Bishal Dutta, "It Lives Inside" is carried by innovative horror imagery, a well-constructed script and great central performances that hold the emotional heart of the story. It's not a perfect film, but it will keep you on the edge of your seat from those opening shots until the closing credits.
Samidha (Megan Suri) is a high-school student living in Los Angeles. She struggles with the usual problems of an American teenager: trying to pass her driving test, courting the cute boy in her English class, fitting in with the popular girls. Samidha (or Sam, as her non-Indian friends call her) is also the child of immigrants. Throughout the film, Samidha deals with the divergent cultural influence of her friend group and her parents. Tamira (Mohana Krishnan) is a classmate of hers who begins acting strangely and carrying around an ominous-looking Mason jar. It's up to Samidha to figure out what's going on with Tamira and whether something sinister may be lurking inside her.
These two young actresses are the film's secret weapons, especially Suri, who is asked to do a lot here yet never fails to impress. She's great both as a romantic lead and as someone who must endure what turns out to be a supernatural attack. The film hinges on her ability to provide context for the stories of a number of supporting characters, and Suri does just that. In one pivotal early scene, she has to turn on a dime, emotionally speaking. Watching her move from empathy to disgust in a split second is genuinely exciting, hinting at the complex emotional arc her character will ultimately go through.
Krishnan has an easier task but is equally well equipped. Their scenes together are gripping, and when they're both on-screen, it's difficult to look away.
The supporting cast delivers small but effective performances, particularly Vik Sahay and Neeru Bajwa, who as Samidha's father and mother provide emotional warmth and weight. Bajwa energizes the final act of the film, increasing the stakes in terms of story and character. Despite the pair's limited screen time, they are complete characters with an interior life that far surpasses what is expected from the horror genre.
Dutta's screenplay expertly blends the lived reality of Indian immigrants with the classic structure of a summer horror flick. The character of Samidha is simultaneously specific and universal. Anyone who has struggled to find friends and maintain connections through their teenage years will be able to relate to her story. The tree-lined streets and high school hallways evoke classics of the high school movie genre, while the dynamics of an Indian immigrant family in suburban Los Angeles are wholly original. Dutta's story doesn't just combine elements but elevates them, using a familiar trope -- the demonic entity -- as a metaphor for cultural disconnection and assimilation. Elevated horror is a thorny term, but it's undeniable that Dutta has gone beyond stereotype to create something interesting on a multi-textual level.
He's just as inventive in the director's chair, creating a sense of intimacy, where appropriate, through performance and camerawork, and using what appears to have been a modest budget to conjure memorable imagery and effective scares.
"It Lives Inside" is not without flaws: The middle third of the film is poorly paced; horror gimmicks that initially shock are, at times, overused; and the visuals can sometimes feel two-dimensional and bland. But none of that ultimately matters. The scares work when they need to, and the most important sequences are well shot and dynamic.
Most surprising? This is Dutta's first feature. Like other recent horror debuts -- "Skinamarink," "Talk to Me," "Barbarian" and "Bodies Bodies Bodies" -- "Inside" heralds a unique voice in the genre. It's an exciting time for horror, and "It Lives Inside" is a great addition to an unfolding new canon. Whatever Dutta or the directors of those other films do next, this reviewer will be first in line.