Back in 2012, Ciarán Foy made a disturbing indie horror flick called Citadel. With that film, he showed that he could make horror with a polished sense of dread and an uneasy aesthetic. It wasn’t a great horror film, but it’s getting him some regular work in the genre.
His latest is Eli, which was released this month on Netflix. From a screenplay by David Chirchirillo, Ian Goldberg, and Richard Naing, Eli tells the story of the unfortunate title character, played by Charlie Shotwell. Eli is unfortunate because he’s basically allergic to everything. He lives in a sterile environment, but should he leave his bubble in anything less than a hermetically sealed hazmat suit, he goes into anaphylactic shock.
His parents, Rose and Paul (Kelly Reilly and Max Martini), desperate for a cure, take him to a clinic run Dr. Isabella Horn (Lili Taylor). She and her assistants, Nurse Barbara and Nurse Maricela (Deneen Tyler and Katia Gomez), have set up shop in an old country mansion that, according to Dr. Horn, had been left derelict and abandoned for many years. It makes no sense as a place in which to create a sealed environment free of all allergens, but as a creepy location for a horror flick, it works. Who doesn’t like their horror to take place at an old mansion?
Eli will be undergoing a series of treatments involving stem cell injection directly into bone marrow. It’s a painful-looking process. Like with many extreme medical treatments, it leaves him feeling worse than before. Besides that, the old house appears to be haunted.
The first night of Eli’s stay, ghostly stuff begins happening. The severity of these spectral incidents grows, as these things tend to do in ghost films. And, like in other ghost films, no one believes Eli when he tries telling them about the ghosts. Dr. Horn tells Eli’s parents that Eli is suffering from hallucinations caused by medication, and they believe it. The only member of the cast who listens to him is Haley, played by Sadie Sink.
Haley isn’t a patient at the clinic. She’s from just down the road, but seems to get her kicks from speaking to the patients at the clinic through the windows of an atrium. Haley’s something of a creepy kid, telegraphing some plot shenanigans later in the film. Until that time, her character feels superfluous.
Shotwell did a very good job playing Eli. It was a physical role, and a little shouty, but when Eli wasn’t yelling, Shotwell delivered a performance on par with the adults.
As for those adults, Taylor was as reliable as ever, but she didn’t seem able, or concerned with, excelling like she can.
Martini had some darkness to his performance. He seems close to losing it throughout the film, in the same way that Jack Torrance was trying his best not to beat his family early on in The Shining. Lest that seem like foreshadowing, their motivations are not the same, but Paul feels as tightly-wound as Torrance.
Reilly gave the best performance. She was compassionate where the character called for it, and tough where that was required. She had one of those performances that I regard as simply professional. She embodied the character to the point I saw Rose and not Kelly. In fact, with the exception of Taylor, each of the leads can claim fine embodiment of character.
Throughout the first two acts of the film, it isn’t clear if the ghosts are real or inside of Eli’s mind. Foy didn’t engineer a mindfuck with the plot, but Eli is the only one seeing the ghosts.
Foy also didn’t bother with much in the way of subtlety. It’s a common trope in ghost films to start small and build up. Were ghosts real, I don’t see why they would ever hold back like they do in movies, but as a narrative device to keep things scary as long as possible in a ghost flick, it works. That’s because if a filmmaker shows too much ghost early on, the ghosts lose their punch for the rest of the film. That happens in this film, as well. Foy was onto something, but the ghosts get a little too familiar with Eli, and that’s about the end of them being frightening. And once the scares are gone in a horror flick, all that’s left is the plot.
There’s good and bad news, there. The bad news is that Eli is one of those horror flicks that goes all-in on a plot twist. The good news, is, I didn’t see it coming. I had a guess or two that was close, but a couple others that were wildly off the mark. I have seen more horror flicks than I can count, and that amount of experience leaves few surprises. So, it’s a treat to me when a film comes along that catches me out, even if the execution isn’t perfect.
Eli is a film that looks better than it is. It benefits from a director with a taste for the aesthetic, and a good cast. It falls short in the execution of the plot, and maybe the twist was a bridge too far.