Netflix Original Eli is a blend of so many subgenres that is is almost impossible to spot the ending. Eli is the story of a young boy (Charlie Shotwell) plagued with an unknown, debilitating illness that requires him to live completely sealed off from the outside world. After exhausting every option, his parents (Kelly Reilly and Max Martini) put their trust—and his life—in the hands of a doctor (Lili Taylor) whose experimental, cutting edge treatments at her clean house facility may hold Eli’s last hope. As Eli undergoes treatment, he begins to be haunted by experiences that make him question who he can trust and what is lurking inside the house.
Directed by Ciarán Foy, Eli is filled to the brim with so many horror subgenres that every twist and turn is unexpected. In the beginning, the film is a traditional hospital horror, but shifts into infection, and hits full throttle into a supernatural world of hauntings and religion. Truthfully, each act serves as a different film entirely. But, somehow, Foy makes it all work, and I don’t know how. I really, really don’t.
At the start, Eli is a curious child, held back by his physical condition that makes him vulnerable to the world. While we see the seriousness after he almost dies in the opening of the film, we also begin to see the stress it places on his parents. As they enter the clean house, it’s clear that Eli’s parents have given everything to bring him there in hopes to not only cure him but to also give him a life outside a plastic barrier.
Eli starts off by showcasing the disease’s effects on the boy’s body: he cries and writhes on the floor as the air hits him. By doing this, Foy sets us up to expect the danger to come from inside him. The film shifts gears as we enter the clean house. Built on a solid foundation of jump scares, the haunting of the clean house is a transition that pushes us to question not only his disease but the ghosts of the children that came before him. It’s here that Shotwell as Eli proves his horror muster.
In one scene, where the horror comes to a head, Eli is dragged through a hallway by unseen forces. What could have been a simple pull from wires, with Shotwell just showcasing fear, turns into a defiant fight against the invisible hands carrying Eli. He twists his body, he screams for help, and he fights. It’s a scene in the film that triggers Eli’s character progression as well. While the adults around him gaslight his experiences and fear of the doctor, he decides to take his survival into his own hands.
From this point on, Eli begins to shift away from sickness into a completely supernatural story as Eli discovers the facility’s secrets, all of which lead up to another subgenre switch in the third act that, for the sake of keeping this review spoiler-free, I won’t explain.
Eli is a surprise. While I’m sure some will call the jump scares cheap, they are used to define the subgenre the film is embodying. The scares also change as the film does, which showcases Foy’s knowledge of horror as well as Shotwell’s range. While Shotwell is truly the star of Eli, the performances from the adults are also worth mentioning.
As the parents, Kelly Reilly and Max Martini are able to carry out the tone change well, from desperate and loving to desperate and fearful parents, all the while portraying a relationship teetering on the edge of dissolution. That said, horror veteran Lili Taylor exacerbates any fear of doctors that the viewer may have as Dr. Horn who is caring, yet stern, and extremely mysterious. The ominous atmosphere of the clean house, huge and cavernous and yet home to just the doctor, her 3 nurses, and Eli’s family, is a character as well.
Overall, Eli isn’t the perfect film since the story is second to the scares. That said, it’s extremely fun and takes the audience on a ride that explores almost every toy in the horror toybox, resulting in a narrative that is perfect for Halloween and any other time of the year that horror fans are looking for a good spooky night.
Eli is streaming exclusively on Netflix.
Photo Credit: Netflix / Patti Perret
Eli isn’t the perfect film since the story is second to the scares. That said, it’s extremely fun and takes the audience on a ride that explores almost every toy in the horror toybox, resulting in a narrative that is perfect for Halloween and any other time of the year that horror fans are looking for a good spooky night.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.