We continue our coverage of FilmQuest 2021, following Tyler Doupé’s review of the trippy trip Sister Tempest. Today is the turn of They Live Inside Us, Michael Ballif’s feature directorial debut. Is this a horror homage worth bringing home? Or is it better to just write it off? Let’s find out!
The Setup is a Horror Staple
A recently widowed screenwriter rents a haunted house in his hometown in order to overcome writer’s block. That’s my take on the logline. The official logline reads: “Seeking inspiration for a new writing project, a man spends Halloween night in a notoriously haunted house. He soon realizes he is living in his own horror story.” However, I feel like it leaves out a lot of what made the film stand out to me.
Sure, the trope of a writer haunted by his writing in more ways than one is a classic, and usually lands well with audiences. But there’s some real emotional weight on James Morris’ character’s shoulders. Not only is he struggling for a new project, but he recently lost his wife. He also needs to provide for, care for and entertain his disabled daughter.
Jake (Morris’ character) then writes a few short screenplays based on some seed words. Each seed is a type of antagonist: clowns, scarecrows, etc. As he writes the screenplay, we then see it taking shape and coming alive. Neat concept! And definitely a loveletter to horror. But what about its execution?
They Live Inside Us is a Balancing Act… & it Sometimes Falls Apart
There’s a lot of stuff I like about this film. It packs a lot of cool stuff, plenty of homages to genre staples. It’s definitely geared towards horror fans. In a way, it reminds me of The Cabin in the Woods. And those screenplay-brought-to-life moments are superb: an 80’s look, with a soundtrack to match. Cheesy, gory fun.
But there are also places where They Live Inside Us falls apart. In particular, the scenes with the screenwriter himself. Sometimes it’s James Morris’ slightly over-the-top physical performance. Others it’s audio tracks slightly out-of-sync with dialog. For one reason or another, there is a lack of balance or delivery in moments which need to be perfect to nail the emotional weight they were created to carry. And it hurts the enjoyability of the film.
Not All Is Doom and Gloom
There are some glaring flaws in this movie, for sure. But there are also some moments of genuine brilliance. The short films which are created by the screenplays really are lovely homages to 80s B-horror classics such as Killer Klowns From Outer Space and Sleepaway Camp.
The music, while it eventually becomes repetitive, provides some great ambiance and sets the tone (pun intended) for that retro b-horror vibe.
In the end, They Live Inside Us is a solid debut from a director who obviously adores the genre. Sometimes technically flawed and with ocassionally lackluster performances, it remains a compelling watch which, for better or worse, relies heavily on its emotional impact to set itself apart from the pack.
They Live Inside Us was reviewed in the context of our FilmQuest 2021 coverage.
They Live Inside Us is a compelling love letter to horror, despite minor technical flaws and spotty performances.