It’s a sunny and idyllic day outdoors. The sky is the brightest blue and the grass is lush and green. A very happy, blond, and blue-eyed young boy is heading towards a picnic, just out of focus beyond his line of sight. He pushes past an old school clothesline of white laundry hanging out to dry. Suddenly, he flushes red and falls to the ground with a brutal and almost deadly allergic reaction. This our introduction to the world of Netflix’s new horror film Eli.
The aforementioned scene is nothing more than a terrible nightmare that our protagonist Eli (Charlie Shotwell) wakes from and, as it turns out, his real-life is equally terrifying. The poor little boy does, in fact, suffer from some very serious allergies. So severe that he has to be kept behind plastic. He cannot leave his sterile tent, not even for daily hygiene. When he does venture outside he must do so in a hazmat style suit. We soon get to see just how severely Eli is effected when a run-in with some dreadful bullies causes a rip in the suit. Immediately his skin flushes that same bright red from his nightmare and he is unable to breathe.
“…a haunted house tale […] complete with some decent jump scares and requisite ghostly activity”
The child is clearly suffering and that suffering is matched by his weary parents, played by Kelly Reilly (Sherlock Holmes) and Max Martini (Pacific Rim). The mother is unnamed but the father is called Paul, an interesting choice by the screenwriters that ultimately foreshadows events to come in this film. When we meet the family, the father is checking them out of a seedy motel, and since he appears to have maxed his credit cards and spent his last dime on the care of his sick child, he has to hand over his watch to pay for the duration of their stay. The family then enjoys a comfortable car ride together, the destination causing some tension, but still sharing jokes and happy conversation. It is here that the relationship lines are drawn. Mother and son are ridiculously close, with her seeming to take on his pain as her own while dad is keeping everything at a bit more than an arm’s length away.
From here, the family heads to an ominous old mansion, or as it is called here “a clean house”, where an experimental treatment for their child is to take place. They are greeted in the foyer by frequent horror mainstay Lili Taylor (The Conjuring) and the sight of her standing before a sprawling staircase immediately brought to mind her turn in 1999’s The Haunting, the flawed but ambitious adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Eli is told that he is safe here, that he can move about freely and even enjoy a shower. After much trepidation, the little boy eventually settles in and becomes genuinely curious about his new surroundings. He has a freedom that he has not likely experienced in a very long time, so when he starts “seeing things” most everyone chalks it up to his delicate constitution; more shades of Shirley Jackson. This effectively sets the stage for a haunted house tale and initially that’s exactly what the audience gets, complete with some decent jump scares and requisite ghostly activity during the family’s stay in this ominous place.
Amidst all of the haunting, there is also some family drama that we see begin to unfold. Eli has to go through some pretty brutal medical procedures, which taxes the child and his already overwrought parents. Scary medical procedures are a bit of a trope in some pretty scary horror movies, so see where your mind takes you to while watching these scenes. We also see some very tense private moments between the mother and Paul, and it is hinted that there may potentially have been some possible infidelity on the part of the mother, of which Paul has clearly not forgiven her for. Eli finds a friend in a mysterious and sassy redhead named Haley, played by Sadie Sink (Stranger Things), who chats with him from the outside through a large window in his room. She is the one who makes note of the fact that the experimental treatments that Eli is undergoing appear to be doing him more harm than good. Throughout all of this, scary specters and haunting horrors continue to abound, leading the viewer down a dark path that demands resolution; some light, any light, at the end of this family’s dark and sad tunnel.
The themes of the trauma of childhood illness and the trials and tribulations of his unnamed mother make up the backbone of this frightening movie. Speaking as an anxious mom, I can tell you there is almost nothing more frightening than when something is wrong with my child that I can do nothing to stop. Again the fact that she is unnamed lends to the idea that her identity rests solely in the protection and care of her son. Paul, the dad, certainly plays a role here as well but his attitude throughout reflects that the cure is worth any cost while the mother draws the line at the ultimate protection of her offspring. The relationship between mother and sick son is the through-line through this film and while it is tested, the message that a mother’s love knows absolutely no bounds comes through to the last minute of this terrifying tale.
“…unique and strangely satisfying…”
That is where I will leave you in regards to the summary of this twisted story, as to go any further about really almost any of the movie’s action or my observations would head into serious spoiler territory. There are some great scares and tense moments throughout the course of this wild and winding film. My only complaint was that some scenes in the middle perhaps dragged a bit or felt a bit repetitive. There is a lot of hinting around things, as well as repeated and increasingly grisly medical procedures that take place and at times wanted the action to head a bit more quickly or clearly to its final destination. But ultimately, when all is revealed, it is a unique and strangely satisfying conclusion.
Eli is currently streaming on Netflix. Have you had a chance to watch the new thriller? Share your thoughts with us on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!