By JAMES TUCKER
Starring: Charlie Shotwell, Sadie Sink, Lili Taylor
Directed by Ciarán Foy
Written by David Chirchirillo, Ian Goldberg, Richard Naing
Produced by Intrepid Pictures, Bellevue Productions, MTV Films
I’ve noticed a trend with these: I review what turns out to be a subpar film on Tuesdays, and usually an above average one on Fridays. It’s completely unintentional, I promise, and I’ll work on mixing it up a bit. But this week that pattern holds true with Netflix’s ELI, a sneaky little paranormal horror film that transitions from subgenre to subgenre, stringing its audience along before revealing itself as a clever riff on an age-old classic.
ELI follows the titular character (Charlie Shotwell) and his parents Rose (Kelly Reilly) and Paul (Max Martini) as they travel to a special neuroscience facility headed by a woman named Dr. Horn (Lili Taylor) to see if they can cure Eli’s strange condition. Eli is allergic to the outdoors; if he so much as steps foot outside, he loses the ability to breathe and red rashes break out all over his skin. To say he can’t have a normal childhood like this is an understatement; his fear of contaminants prevents him from hugging his parents, taking showers, and going anywhere outside of his hermetically sealed tent without a makeshift hazmat suit. So, in a last-ditch attempt to cure Eli the family has gone to Dr. Horn’s facility, a state-of-the-art operating area built inside of an old, decrepit house. As treatment begins Eli begins to see strange things around the house, and neighbor Haley (Sadie Sink) warns him that the house is haunted and Dr. Horn isn’t to be trusted. Apparently after the third procedure, nobody has ever come back. As he continues to see ghosts and Dr. Horn’s research does a number on him, Eli is forced to ask: what is happening to him? And who can he trust?
“ELI is a modern-day riff on a time-honored horror classic with a message I can get behind: overprotective parents beware.”
I would say that this movie switches subgenres about once per act, alternating between modern paranormal horror movie (a la Paranormal Activity and The Babadook), psychological horror, and a third genre that I can’t really divulge here without spoilers. One of the things that was immediately notable to me about this film was how excellently all of the typical paranormal horror clichés were executed; this film anchors you firmly in the perspective of its 11 year old protagonist, and each time he was visited by one of the spirits in the house it felt akin to little Danny Torrance breaking into room 237. While none of the setup for the scares themselves felt completely original, quite a few of them pack a punch. I believe this is largely due to how sympathetic of a protagonist Eli is; he’s a sweet kid and the added issue of his mysterious illness, which would be a cliché in of itself in a lesser film, really adds to the strangeness of the situation as much as it helps us feel the family’s desperation for everything to turn out all right. Grounding the film in Eli’s perspective (for the most part, aside from a couple of plot-relevant scenes) also enables the film to dabble in psychological horror for a bit as Eli asks himself whether anyone around him is telling him the truth: are the ghosts he’s seeing real? Is there a conspiracy to get him to go through with the treatment? Can he trust anyone? Of course, the film dabbles just enough, revealing all in a climax that takes an abrupt left turn into… well, exactly the kind of territory this column was created to cover.
Not everyone will like the turn this film takes, which more than likely explains the mixed reviews: for my part, I loved it. It transformed my whole understanding of what came before, rendering ELI a modern-day riff on a time-honored horror classic with a message I could get behind: overprotective parents beware. Of course, that’s a gross oversimplification of what this film is actually about, but I AM trying to avoid spoilers. It won’t be a spoiler to say that this is a kind of coming of age narrative for Eli, who up till this point has always relied on his parents’ judgment to tell him what was safe and what wasn’t, what’s good and what’s bad. Faith and science both become apparatuses of control, ways in which Eli is made powerless and subject to forces beyond his control: it is only after he comes into his own that he is able to take a stand and choose his own way. Yes, I am aware that last part could be a little troubling, especially in 2020 where people are like “I don’t have to wear a mask, I know better.” But I’m choosing to frame it as this is a kids’ perspective, and certain plot elements pretty much invalidate any concerns I would have on that front (you’ll have to watch it to see). The climax of the film feels earned if a bit silly, a batshit conclusion that makes it clear that Eli was right to look out for himself first. The film wraps up on the note that sometimes, the world actually IS out to get you, and part of growing up is taking a stand for yourself and going your own way.
I tend to give a film credit when it takes me in a direction I wasn’t expecting. Even more so when it’s clear that direction was planned well in advance; the climax was exactly the kind of cheesy, entertaining, over the top stuff that this columnist lives for, the antidote to an all-too-typically stale subgenre. The modern paranormal horror genre could use a couple more ELI’s, even with its imperfections. I’m giving this one an 8.
Netflix “week” ends next week with “We Summon the Darkness.”