Whenever we watch a haunted house story, audiences tend to say, “I would be out of that house so fast! Why don’t they leave!?” Fair question, imaginary viewer. That’s just one of many crux’s that haunting films must endure, and while Eli falls victim to a handful of them, the film finds a unique way to satisfy all of us backseat filmmakers…
…That’s because the title character, Eli (Charlie Shotwell), can’t leave, thanks to a terrible auto-immune disorder that makes him deathly allergic to fresh air. AIR. The latest creepy outing from director Ciaran Foy (Sinister 2), Eli is a medical thriller meets haunted house story with a twist, which follows lonely Eli and his parents, played by Kelly Reilly and Max Martini, as they arrive at a treatment facility run by Dr. Horn (the always great Lili Taylor), who promises to cure Eli. This is no ordinary facility, though. To make Eli and his family more comfortable, the enormous facility is designed like a home, where Eli can roam without worry of being exposed to unclean air. But Eli soon discovers that the place isn’t as safe as he thought once the house’s ghostly tenants make themselves known.
Good lord, if watching sad, sick children is something that makes your heart ache, Eli is a tear-jerker. I felt terrible for this kid from the get go. After waking from a horrific dream in which Eli first discovers his disease, which causes burns and boils to form all over his flesh like the worst case of sunburn ever, we see Eli leaving a hotel room in a bright-blue hazmat suit, which of course attracts the attention of a bunch of bullies who throw things at him. Eli’s entire life is loneliness, spent mostly reading, as he mentions, a loneliness which cut at my heart-strings, thanks to an incredibly moving performance from young Shotwell. Seriously, this kid has a bright future ahead of him.
Foy puts us right in the shoes of Eli and forces us to experience how harsh of an existence he’s lead up to this point, not just through bullying, but through Eli’s own gratefulness to be in a “clean house” where he’s allowed to be, well, human. Once Dr. Horn finishes the tour of the facility and convinces Eli it’s safe to take his suit off, he and his mother break down at being able to touch each other’s hands, a simple moment for most which is so significant for them. Even taking a shower is a touching experience, as Eli laughs and sobs as the water pours down, the first time he’s been able to take one in a long time. Between his depression, his mother’s anxiety, and his father’s anger at the situation, this is a stressed family on the verge of completely breaking, desperate for hope.
So of course no one believes Eli when he says the house is haunted, except for mysterious new friend Haley (Sadie Sink), who may be a ghost herself. Just once, I’d love for the parents in a movie like this to actually believe their kid. But they don’t, despite the fact that its obvious (and maybe a little too obvious) from the get go that there is something terribly off about Horn’s treatment “home”. Eli plays into all of the standard haunted house tropes. A perpetual, atmospheric fog hangs around the middle of nowhere mansion. Pipes groan like the voices of the dead. Contortionist shadows stalk Eli through the house. Ghostly messages are left scrawled on doors and mirrors. If you’ve seen any formulaic, jump scare a minute haunted house film, you’ve seen the first two-thirds of Eli.
And that’s a disappointment, because Eli has every chance to stand out and do something different. Eli himself isn’t a traditional character to haunted house stories, and neither is the house itself. My eyebrows raised a bit once its introduced that the house is actually a high tech lab, like a more drab version of the Resident Evil mansion, but that interest was short lived, as the filmmaker’s do hardly a thing with it. Despite an entire house ripe for technological scares, Eli instead finds himself wandering plain old gothic hallways and spacious, unthreatening rooms. Yawn.
To be honest, the ghosts aren’t all that threatening, either. Where the real terror of Eli comes from is Dr. Horn and her staff. Horn might as well tell Eli he’s going to die during their first meeting, when Eli asks if she’s cured everyone, and she doesn’t answer. We’re onto you, doc! Netflix just released another medical terror with Fractured, and Eli is a similar exploration of hospital horror. Any time Eli is taken from his parents for a treatment, the doctors treat him like a piece of meat instead of a sick little boy, so cold and forceful they might as well be robots. We’ve all been there, poked and prodded at by a doctor who just wants to get their work done. It’s clear something’s off, especially when Eli starts to get sicker.
You might think you know where Eli is going, but as much of a twist sniffer as I bet you are, trust me when I say you won’t see the ending to Eli coming. But this is where the film both saves itself from complete and utter mediocrity and nearly bursts into flames. I won’t spoil what happens, but let’s just say, when it comes to twists, the best ones allow the viewer to go back through the film and spot all of the hints. That’s not the case with Eli. The twisty, shocking final act of Eli is like a whiffle ball: full of holes that don’t quite add up, shrieking with excitement, and it comes out of nowhere. This is the one area of the film where it finally feels as if the filmmakers are having fun, regardless of just so many questions that go unanswered.
Eli contains some great performances, especially from Shotwell, with some truly soul-shattering moments and a mind-blowing ending featuring some inspired horror, but this is one that works so hard to hide what’s really going on, that everything else ends up feeling like a cheap distraction. If you don’t mind an hour of standard ghost fare, the third act almost makes the wait worth it. Almost.
Eli is now haunting Netflix.
By Matt Konopka