★★ out of ★★★★★
Directed by Ciairan Foy
Hey Netflix, we see you over there! Yeah, you. Trying your darnedest to jump on that horror bandwagon, peer in to the abyss, produce that oh-so-perfect horror film, and reap the ghoulish accolades of horror fans everywhere. Just so you know, it’s not working. While 2019’s Eli is awfully close to being a solid film you still have a lot of work to do to make in the fast-paced world of horror.
Eli (or as we come to learn later in the film — LIE, or alternatively, 317) is fairly complete gateway horror film that follows a tween (played by Charlie Shotwell) in to the dark depths of the medical profession as his family desperately works to reverse a “boy in the plastic bubble” ailment. According to Eli himself, he wasn’t born this way, but his physical constitution morphed to the point where he has difficulty breathing non-purified air and when exposed to the elements his skin burns with a crispy intensity. Flummoxed by their son’s malady, Eli’s parents connect up with Dr. Isabella Horn (well-played by Lilly Taylor), a peculiar medial professional, with a Victorian facility in the middle of nowhere. Think the house in the Haunting plopped on the set of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Eli’s parents, desperate to try anything jump hook-line-and-sinker for Dr. Horn’s unorthodox experiments in her very unorthodox compound. With the experiments come side effects. Eli immediately begins hallucinating, sees ghost-like apparitions, and encounters a kind but mischievous girl on the edge of the facility. The young girl, Haley (Sadie Sink from Stranger Things), informs Eli that the house is likely haunted, she’s no really welcome there, and she recommends he get the heck out of dodge. She’s also an incredibly underwhelming and underused character.
As the experiments continue to plod forward, so does the film. Containing a strange number of foggy mirror jump scares, non-scary jump scares, and some superbly bad acting by Mom, Dad, and well, Eli. WC Fields once wisely opined “never act with animals or children.” While his wisdom has been occasionally undone over the years, this adage, or at least part of it is still quite the truism. In the case of Eli, its weakness if not so much a function of the fact that he is a bad actor, it’s that he’s largely required to carry the whole film. Highs, lows, drama, scares, and empathy. That’s a lot to ask for a tween actor that’s been boxed in by a gaggle of so-so co-stars and a non-scary horror script.
[SPOILER WARNING… skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know about the big twist]
Eventually, Eli comes to the realization that the experiments are not experiments and that his disease is not a disease — at least not in the medical sense. Eli, it turns out, is a spawn of demons — maybe even Satan himself — and the “facility” that’s so desperate to treat him is a secret-nun-demon-exorcism-superstructure. The nuns won’t be deterred in their quest to stomp out the vile malevolence that Eli may become. The tween allegory regarding puberty and the growing pains of life is on full display in the last act as his parents do everything they can to save their precious Satan seed.
[END SPOILER WARNING]
Because, in the first two acts, the film opted to be so exceptionally coy with its references to an almighty battle between Satan and the church, the last act is crammed with silly, unbelievable, and poorly constructed exposition. Director Ciaran Foy (of Sinister 2 fame) packs the entire film up into a nice, neat, and tidy bow. All is well-explained and the ending is…well… an ending. With a little better writing, a little better acting, and little less Eli, Eli could have been a pretty fun outing. Instead, we’re left with a ham-fisted cult happening that’s inappropriately carried by a tween.
Eli is likely PG-13 and currently streaming on Netflix — possibly FOREVER!