“Eli,” the new Netflix original movie out just in time for Halloween, has all the makings of a mediocre horror flick: a sick kid, a haunted house and a middle-class white couple plagued by supernatural happenings. Fortunately, the film is just innovative enough to be worth a watch, putting a fresh spin on a tired premise.
The film follows Eli, a boy suffering from a rare autoimmune condition that forces him to live sealed off from the outside world, a la Jake Gyllenhaal in “Bubble Boy.” His parents’ newest hope for a cure involves staying in an old house converted into a medical facility run by the mysterious Dr. Horn, played by horror mainstay Lili Taylor (“The Conjuring”). It’s not long, however, before Eli begins to suspect that not everything is as it seems. He’s haunted by shadowy figures, and sinister messages begin appearing in foggy mirrors. Worse, each medical procedure he undergoes seems to make him more and more sick. With the help of Hayley, an enigmatic teenager played by Sadie Sink (“Stranger Things”), he works to discover the truth about both Dr. Horn and his medical condition.
While some elements recall “The Conjuring” or “The Haunting of Hill House,” “Eli” sets itself apart from other haunted house films by focusing on Eli, rather than his parents. In a clever subversion of the genre, the audience — and eventually Eli — come to suspect that Eli’s parents are not as trustworthy as they might seem. This makes for a much more interesting film, providing Eli with agency where other films might place him in a more passive role. Charlie Shotwell (“Captain Fantastic”) does an admirable job carrying the film, imbuing Eli’s character with a perfect mixture of childlike sweetness and pre-teen insolence. Meanwhile, Kelly Reilly (“Yellowstone”) and Max Martini (“13 Hours”) give solid performances as the seemingly stereotypical concerned mother and blase father.
Although “Eli” offers a few new twists on the haunted house movie, it isn’t a particularly effective piece of horror. Director Ciaran Foy employs an array of garden-variety scares — your typical shadowy figures, distorted voices, flickering lights, dark reflections in mirrors and fake-out dream sequences. “Eli” attempts to create doubt as to whether Eli’s encounters with the supernatural are real or merely hallucinations caused by his medications. However, even this tired and true method of building suspense fails. Dr. Horn is such a blatantly untrustworthy figure that we never have reason to suspect her medical explanation of Eli’s experiences is real.
Far more disturbing than the supernatural elements are the grisly operations that Eli undergoes. These scenes are accentuated by garish fluorescent lighting, gruesome visuals and the disarmingly cavalier way Dr. Horn talks Eli through each procedure. In fact, I would go so far as to say that “Eli” might have been a more successful horror film if it cut out the supernatural elements entirely.
“Eli” poses some interesting questions about raising a child with a rare illness. As Eli’s condition worsens, we are confronted with a disturbing dilemma: at what point is it unethical to subject a child to dangerous medical treatments, even if there is a chance they might be cured? We are left to wonder just how far Eli’s parents are willing to go to have a “normal,” healthy child. By comparison, ghostly apparitions and demonic voices feel like nothing more than cheap scares.
If you’re looking for a fast-paced, fun horror flick to watch this October, you could do worse than “Eli.” It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s a fresh spin on a stale premise that’s a little smarter than your average haunted house movie.