Kids. Can’t live with ’em, can’t bring them outdoors for fear the air will burn their skin and suffocate them due to a rare auto-immune disorder. No? That’s just Eli (Charlie Shotwell)? The boy wasn’t always like this, but young Eli was moved into a “boy in the bubble” situation to protect him some years prior, and his parents have been going slowly broke ever since. Rose (Kelly Reilly) and Paul (Max Martini) are still holding out hope for their son, though, and the family’s last chance comes in the form of Dr. Isabella Horn (Lili Taylor). She offers them an experimental cure involving gene therapy, surgery, and maybe a little bit of prayer, but it’s not long after the family’s arrival at her remote estate — a “clean” house designed to keep contaminants outside — that Eli begins noticing frightening things.
Like excessively painful treatments, cruel nurses, and angry ghosts.
Netflix’s latest foray into horror comes on the heels of higher profile duds — sorry Mercy Black, The Silence, In the Tall Grass, and many more — and it delivers where too many of them have failed. Eli is a smart, creepy, and playful little chiller that sets the stage by teasing some vaguely familiar ideas before finding its own footing in the back half. Director Ciarán Foy builds an intriguing and occasionally unsettling atmosphere around the boy’s new home, and even with a limited cast of seven the script (credited to David Chirchirillo, Ian Goldberg, and Richard Naing) still keeps viewers guessing as to loyalty and intentions.
Foy first made a name for himself with his feature debut, 2012’s Citadel, before coming to America and finding box-office success with Blumhouse’s Sinister 2 (2015). Eli is arguably the most assured and effective of his films so far, though, as the filmmaker crafts some terrific scares with what feels at first like an overly familiar tale. Lazy (ie studio mandated) music/sound stingers announce some of them, but Foy finds plenty of terror in ghostly images and actions that arrive in silence to spook both viewers and Eli himself.
Eli’s haunted by spirits who push and pull him when they’re not simply terrifying him, and the effects work succeeds beautifully at creating the illusion of “invisible” presences. Shotwell (Captain Fantastic, 2016) helps sell the magic with a visibly terrified performance and what looks to be some of his own stunt-work. The why behind their actions becomes the question, and it’s one neither his parents nor the staff seem interested in answering. The only voice of reason and support he finds is a local girl named Haley (Sadie Sink, a Netflix veteran having starred in the last two seasons of Stranger Things) who he talks to through a window. She’s friendly, but more than that, she suggests all might not be on the up and up within the house’s walls, and it’s the push Eli needs to find the truth behind his predicament.
Taylor does good work even if her character is unavoidably suspicious from the outset, and both Reilly and Martini are equally compelling as parents wanting the best for their child but on seemingly different pages as to how to do that. Their desperation is palpable, and they’re at odds over past actions, but the actors convince in their unified desire for their family’s future. The script does smart work teasing the couple’s loose threads, and as it does with both the house and another of its characters, it teases viewers with assumptions leading to dead ends. The film is ahead of its audience in some entertaining ways, and that’s no small thing as it goes in some welcome — but occasionally bonkers — directions.
Eli moves at a brisk pace, and Bear McCreary‘s score helps its increasingly propulsive feel as events and the story ramp up on its way to a fun finale. It’s safe to assume that not all of the characters will survive, but I’ll add that there are some creative demises awaiting them as Foy turns what could have been a rote outcome into something visually engaging and thrilling. An under-appreciated aspect of horror films is the presence of a character worth rooting for, and Eli — both through the script and Shotwell’s performance — offers viewers that character. He’s a kid, after all, and while they’re often presented as obnoxious and annoying in genre fare Eli is a boy we want to see succeed and survive. Of course, it’s a horror film too, after all, so there are no guarantees.
Eli is a fast-moving and spooky feature that delivers some surprises throughout its steady build and quick descent, and horror fans looking for some creepy fun are well-advised to give it a watch.