While so many horror movies focus on darkness, It Lives Inside leans into the light. The supernatural horror film, the debut feature from writer and director Bishal Dutta, plays with light, color, and physical texture as much as it explores what dwells in the shadows and beyond.
The film centers on Samidha, aka Sam (Megan Suri), an Indian-American teenager who shuns her cultural identity in an attempt to fit in at school. But when a demonic spirit plucked from Hindu folklore latches onto her estranged best friend, Tamira (Mohana Krishnan), Sam must embrace the very thing she's trying to reject — her heritage — in order to save her. In creating the lore of It Lives Inside, Dutta drew on monster movies like Pumpkinhead (1988) and David Cronenberg's Oscar-winning classic The Fly (1986), as well as his own heritage.
"The mythology is so rich from our culture," the filmmaker tells A.frame. "It is storytelling that has some terrifying components to it, and there are so many stories. These fables and myths have lasted this long for a reason."
A.frame: You've previously said that when you moved to the U.S. from India as a child, much of your social education came from horror movies. What did they show you?
I was three when I saw Jaws for the first time. My grandfather was the only person in our small town in India who had a VCR. He showed me it, and I've been obsessed with movies ever since. There were movies I saw way too early, like The Terminator and Aliens, which blew my mind when I was five or six. I kept seeing these movies but did not understand specific cultural references and touchstones of people around me. Films like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Poltergeist had such an impact on my parents and peers; they would talk about them around me, so I would watch them, and I understood more as I was learning these bits and pieces of trivia and cultural moments. It was also about the fun of being scared together. The Conjuring came out when I was 16, and that experience blew me away. We were laughing and screaming, kids were daring each other to see it, and my parents couldn't get even halfway through it. But that taught me the power of the communal experience. All of that combined helped me feel more like I belonged here.
There are elements of so many of those movies in It Lives Inside. Did you reference those films for your younger cast members to watch and understand?
A lot of the fun of the prep process was these young actors watching certain movies for the first time. Carrie had a massive impact on how we talked about the film, and a lot of them were seeing it for the first time. It was not necessarily just the classics that impacted this film. Ginger Snaps was a massive influence on It Lives Inside, as was John Carpenter's Christine and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge, which is such an interesting movie. These films are so latent with emotion, ideas, and points of view, and I wanted the actors to feel like we were making a movie that would privilege the character side of things and focus on point of view.
What was so exciting was watching the young actors find a very real response to the horror. They had so many ideas and interesting behavioral points of view on how they would respond to something like this in real life. What is so important in horror films is reaction shots and how the audience maps themselves onto the actors' reactions. I felt like the young cast — Megan, Mohana, and Gage Marsh — brought so much nuance to how they reacted to the horror that it made the film feel different in many ways.
Indian culture embraces a lot of imagery of deities that are fantastical, elaborate, and almost supernatural creatures. As with cultural references, strict rules must be followed in horror movies. These characters have these rules. Was that commonality an essential thing for you?
One hundred percent. There's the story of Vikram and Betaal, which I was terrified of growing up, and these stories linger because there's something primal and universal about them. As I looked into the mythology, and especially as I was figuring out what this Pishacha does, it felt like the more specific I got with the movie, the more universal it would feel. It's also part of why we pulled the Durga component into it. For those who don't know, Durga is a goddess known for defeating an uber demon called Mahishasura. As I was writing, I was feeling like, "Oh wow. In a way, I am retelling that story without understanding it, because that is such an iconic and mythic story." Adding that to the movie's texture helps it live within that mythological context in our culture.
Because there is so much of a visual context element to the cultural aspects of It Lives Inside, when you pitched it, did you do storyboarding as well?
Absolutely. What's really exciting to me when I'm writing and directing a project is that there's a two-pronged path to it. One is undoubtedly the script, which is so important. Still, at the same time, I'm constantly compiling so much visual data to show my collaborators what the film feels like, its mood, and even the physical texture of things. We talked so much about how the monster's skin should feel. I try to be a filmmaker focused on texture, because that's what I think sticks with an audience. It's what I love about practical filmmaking, because when you texture a world, both on the physical level and the design and costume level, that's when an audience feels like they can be fully immersed. There were a tremendous amount of storyboards. I had learned to animate specific sequences through previs software, and so there were whole sequences where I had every shot animated — roughly of course — but cut together to be able to say, "This is how this needs to feel." We'd never stick to it down to the tee, it was just so my collaborators understood the intention.
How much of the monster did you want to have as practical effects, and how much did you want to create in post? Could you have the luxury of full-body suits, or was it covering a hand here and a torso there?
I can't tell you how lucky I was to get to do a full creature suit in this movie. The aesthetic I wanted was coming out of my favorite monster movies of the 1980s. I was thinking a lot about, for example, Pumpkinhead, the Stan Winston monster in that film is incredible. I think it is my favorite movie monster. I talked a lot about Hellraiser, and there's that incredible sequence when Frank was refacilitating his body. We talked a lot about The Fly and the moment where Brundle splits apart, and the fly comes out. These moments were so affecting to me as a kid watching those movies, and I wanted to have that same sort of textural feeling and something physically in front of you and the camera. I thought the audience would really react to that in a visceral way.
I worked with a great monster designer, Todd Masters, to do this monster, but what was always important was that we were using CGI to augment what was already there. I'm a big believer in CGI. I love it as a tool, but it's important that we're building on things that were actually photographed. There are too many nuances of the photographed image to create from scratch.
Where did you find the balance of how much to reveal of the monster, but also how early on you would reveal it?
That was a massive challenge all the way to the end of the film. I'm not being original here, but it was undoubtedly inspired by Jaws and Alien; this is a kind of uber boogeyman, an embodiment of fear. I felt the audience would have this very visceral response if we kept it in the shadows and suggested that it has presence. It has size, ferocity, and brutality, but we didn't exactly show it completely. There was a lot of calibrating that we did. For example, there's a sequence where the creature looks out of a closet, and you see its eyes. We wanted there to be just enough detail in the face that you understood that there's something there; they're not just two beads of light floating — there is something there — but not show too much. Later on, there's a sequence where you're looking at it through a shower curtain, and we tried so many different densities of curtains, because I just wanted enough to understand the physical scale of the thing but not enough to give it a shape or a figure. It was very important to play with the audience's discovery over the course of the film.
There are a couple of locations in It Lives Inside where the use of light is super effective and really important. Two that came to mind were the school and the finale in the basement. Were those both shot on location, or did you have to manufacture those a bit to make them work?
The school was a real school, but the classroom sequence we did in a church. We took a church and reconfigured it into a classroom. Tyler Bishop Harron, our production designer, did a great job. We loved the way light was coming in through the windows. For the finale, we found this incredible location with this basement attached to the rest of the house that you see them explore. It felt like it had so much character built in that we could just augment from there. That sequence is the one where we go a little bit into the realm of the fantastical, but even still, we had a real-world idea for it. There were these windows in the basement that light was flooding through, and we thought it would be sodium vapor light, which reads a little bit of orange. Still, because the house was boarded up, we put these pieces of very yellowed newspaper up on the window, so this orange light filtering through these newspapers was turning into this hellish red. I think that speaks to the approach we tried to take on this movie, which is that it's realistic, yet the realism provides an avenue to create these pieces of intense style.
Something that I found so attractive in this movie was the use of color palettes. There is this incredible use of these rich blacks with dark tones in them. And then there's the beautiful use of earthy tones and reds as well.
Matthew Lynn was my DP, and he and I have worked together for many years. He shot all my short films. Most of the conversation we initially had was about subverting a look that has started to proliferate in horror — which is very desaturated and crushed in the sense that the highest highlight of the image is still a mid-tone. It's a great look that exists now because of HDR technology, but on this movie, I said, "Let's go back to a very punchy, almost comic book look." I wanted this very graphic, saturated feel to the image with a lot of contrast, and when we were going to create these dynamic images, let the highlights be highlights and shadows be shadows. When I think of the culture, I think of rich color. We have Holi, the Festival of Colors, so it was that kind of thing where it only felt right to use these very saturated reds, blues, and oranges and have color be this defining force in the film, to the point that it feels kind of extreme. I love that, and I want to keep pushing the extreme of color and saturation in movies.