(Photo Manipulation by Oli Turner)

Aren’t we all running from our own monsters hiding in the closet? This is all too real for high schooler Samidha (Megan Suri), who finds herself caught in a race against time to evade a folkloric demon. “It Lives Inside,” released in theaters on Sep. 22, wrestles with themes of cultural assimilation and isolation as Samidha runs both from her heritage and the flesh-devouring monster that threatens to eat her very soul. While the new take on cultural horror should be celebrated, writer-director Bishal Dutta did not paint a compelling tale in the film’s 99-minute runtime.

Samidha is like many girls from a minority background in a majority-white suburban landscape. She just wants to fit in at her high school, even if it means abandoning her cultural practices and her childhood best friend. Dutta’s script starts out compelling, but simultaneously giving life to the worlds of both generational trauma and horrifying demons is difficult to pull off. Ultimately, neither are fleshed-out enough to give Samidha a truly sympathetic story.

Still, “It Lives Inside” is able to craft quite the creepy atmosphere that suspends a blanket of suspenseful dread onto the entire film. Wesley Hughes’ chilling score dances through the film with a graceful taste for the macabre, poking us with its signature resounding trill anytime we may forget something horrible is about to happen. Dutta’s choice of lighting and setting drape “It Lives Inside” in a bloody, fiery red-orange hue that creates an atmosphere which seeps into every corner of the film. Exercising both intensity and restraint, the colorful take on the drab suburban landscape ignites the screen while simultaneously carrying a persistent darkness.

Despite its lackluster characters and thin allegory, “It Lives Inside” succeeds in many respects within the genre of the horror flick. Although the film slithers through genre-tropes such as the dream-within-a-dream and the monster’s lair in the basement, its boldness in creating a bone-chilling creature is admirable. Often with films like this, traumas or fears manifest into invisible monsters that haunt protagonists but never actually appear on-screen, seen in the extraterrestrial flick “The Endless” (2017) and the modern classic “Hereditary” (2018).

“It Lives Inside” takes a sharp left turn at this junction. Its climax reveals in entirety the gooey, decaying thing that is the soul-eating Pishacha, elevating the terror that had already gripped us and the girls fighting for their lives. For its PG-13 rating, the film isn’t afraid to get down and dirty. We watch  — without too much regret — as the still-unseen demon wrangles Samidha’s sex-hungry boy crush in a swing set, leaving him nothing but a pile of mingled limbs when it’s finally satisfied with its work. We watch people burn from the inside out. We even see Samidha’s sympathetic teacher Joyce (Betty Gabriel) shaken to bloody slime in a school locker. Although the Pishacha has a particular appetite for the silly b****-slap, it gets just brutal enough to satisfy genre-fans.

After unleashing the powerful demon Pishacha from its unfittingly-tiny lair of a glass jar, Samidha finds herself increasingly tormented, and to confirm her own worst fears, increasingly alone. While the film does well in linking its hair-raising horror with its cultural drama, the script does not give room for any powerful revelations or compelling cultural insights. It touches on faux-appreciation of Samidha’s culture by her white friends and the pressure of being the only one of the two Indian girls at school but never dives into these topics or explores her struggles with them. “It Lives Inside” simply points a finger at reality without attempting to touch it, which weakens the theme to the volume of a whisper.

Furthermore, Dutta’s direction leaves holes everywhere throughout the film, whether it be in awkward pauses in dialogue or the disappearing acts of some of its characters in the early stages of the film. I mean, seriously, where did Samidha’s best friend go after the first act? So much for besties. And despite honorable performances from Suri and Krishnan, the actresses simply aren’t given enough to work with to exercise their full force. These characters give life to an otherwise stale ensemble who don’t get enough screen time nor storytelling to feel like anything more than paper-mache versions of actual people. In combination with an eerily-empty setting devoid of the human life it should contain, I feel a little more aware of what’s going on behind the fourth wall than I would wish.

Dutta shows great potential in his debut feature but ultimately comes up short. Although the breaking of bones and spilling of blood is bound to be celebrated by horror fans, Dutta doesn’t give enough substance to complement his scares. He attempts to tie complex cultural identity questions into a neat little bow, which time and time again proves unsuccessful. Regardless, be wary of straying from your roots — or shattering glass jars that disheveled high school girls carry around and whisper to — for you may just find yourself in a deadly game of chase with demons from the stories of your childhood.

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Nathan Rubin is a Junior from the Carolinas double majoring in Film & Media Studies and English. Outside of being Arts & Entertainment Editor at the Wheel, Nathan is a Writing Editor for Alloy Literary Magazine and hosts a queer radio show on WMRE. When he's not staring blankly at a blinking cursor, you can find him watching way too many horror movies and drinking way too many Baja Blasts.