This movie is not what you might expect, but that isn’t always a great thing.
Eli, directed by Ciarán Foy, was released on Netflix in 2019, and its another one that I put off watching until now. The movie first positions itself as a haunted hospital type film, but there is a little more nuance than that. I’ll get into the details a little more later, but first, I want to say that this movie was definitely better than I thought.
Alright. Let me start by saying that anything with children in it is scarier and sadder for me. I can’t stand it. The idea of a ghost/demon/zombie child staring at face level from the side of my bed has haunted me for literally my entire life. But, I’ve come to find that, more often than not, the child protagonists don’t have a whole lot of actual play in the movie. The parents or older siblings or aunts, uncles, caretakers usually take up the space and the point of view, and the children sit talking to invisible friends or get a couple screams at the end.
Thankfully, Eli used the titular character differently. The movie begins with Eli (Charlie Shotwell), a child who has an unspecified disease that forces him to wear a hazmat suit and avoid outside contaminants, otherwise he flares up with a rash and is unable to breathe. Eli’s parents, Rose (Kelly Reilly) and Paul (Max Martini) are taking Eli across the country to a special doctor who hopes to cure him. As they leave their motel for the final leg of their trip, a surly crew of people sitting in lawn chairs with their Rottweiller (some mean poor people characterization there) start terrorizing the hazmat-clad Eli, throwing firecrackers at him and laughing until he falls and rips his suit. As he panics, his parents tape up the suit, and his mother encourages him to breathe like he is blowing out candles on his birthday cake.
I talked about medical horror films yesterday with Awoken. Hospitals, morgues, sick people–they show up in scary movies all the time, and it’s often that the person with the illness is the object of horror. It’s really not cool, and there are plenty of academic articles about illness, mental and physical, in horror that I might link to when I have more brainpower and time.
But what I get from the first few minutes of Eli is the sense that Eli himself isn’t scary–his illness is scary to him, and to his parents, but he is not the horror here; his isolation and inability to leave is the horror.
And the movie keeps that up for a while. Eli ends up at the so-called “clean house” of Dr. Horn (Lili Taylor), where Eli is free to roam without his suit as he receives treatment meant to cure him. But things change when odd shadows pop up, and a bug starts appearing in the supposedly closed-off house.
I really enjoyed the first section, I guess, of Eli. The ghosts appear in foggy mirror and through windows, their shadows lingering behind Eli as he screams and runs. And that’s what’s so cool! Eli is literally fighting against ghosts; he isn’t just a vessel to scare the adults, because none of the adults believe him! Little Charlie Shotwell did a great job, too, screaming his head off for his mom and dad even as they ignore everything he says.
But one mysterious girl, Hayley (Sadie Sink, of Stranger Things fame), keeps visiting him outside a small, window-walled room at night, and she believes him. When Hayley says that a kid who stayed in the house before Eli mentioned ghosts terrorizing him, Eli decides to find out what’s up.
Okay. So, if you want to watch the movie, don’t read past here. There is a big ol’ 180 at this point in the movie, and, honestly, it felt rushed and unwarranted to me, but, hey, it’s still kinda cool to watch it happen.
Eli gets some special ghost information–a little contrived, since the medical wing keycode 317 is Eli’s name upside down–and finds out that all the children before him died horrible deaths. He goes to confront his parents, and they still don’t care, insisting on Dr. Horn’s treatment. This is integral to the horror, and another reason why I don’t like the twist I’m about to mention; Eli is a genuine and frightened kid, and none of the adults in his life care what he says even as they know he could die. While he feels limited by his illness, saying at one point that he would never survive outside without his parents, he is quite literally trapped inside Dr. Horn’s house by a decontamination door. The kid has nowhere to go, and, as his screams echo down the dark hallways of the mostly-empty house, it’s chilling.
But then a bunch of weird stuff happens. It doesn’t happen all at once, so I’ll give them that; but, over the course of the last thirty minutes or so, Eli’s mother admits to lying to him about his illness, and his father turns on him. And then Eli, with tele- and pyrokinesis, breaks free of Dr. Horn and burns her up with her two nurses in floating, upside-down crucifixions. It was weird.
Basically, Eli’s mom wanted a kid, and God didn’t seem to care, so she let the Devil get her pregnant. His illness was a big ploy to keep him under control and then try and “cure” his devilness, I guess. He breaks free and it turns out that Hayley is his devilish half-sister! And they escape with his mom as their very tense chauffuer! Yay, Eli! You survived!
Yeah, I hated that bit. It was SUCH a turnaround, and it just felt like the movie was trying too many things at once. Plus, the character of Eli was a totally sweet kid who didn’t seem at all predisposed to doing mean devil stuff, like his parents seemed to think he was. Why did they put him through all that? And WHY IN THE WORLD did Eli’s father, who obviously wanted nothing to do with a kid he didn’t make (and who was also a demi-devil), WHYYYYY did this man stay in their lives? Nope. Doesn’t make sense.
I think I would have really liked Eli if it had just stuck to a theme, or maybe hinted at a little more clearly that Eli was something more than human. But, nope. It goes from medical isolation to child ghosts to demon spawn. Eh.
It’s a good watch for background noise, for sure, but I don’t see it going down in history as anything spectacular.