Eli review: the horror movie Paramount sold to Netflix

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Bumped from Paramount’s theatrical schedule earlier this year, Ciarán Foy’s haunted medical clinic chiller Eli has found a home on Netflix. Is it worth a watch?

Netflix’s original films aren’t as consistently strong as its TV series, especially when it comes to the horror genre. Ranging from weird, leftfield films that Hollywood studios wouldn’t usually make, to bombs-in-waiting that studios made by accident and then sold for streaming, the selection of genre output is a mixed bag. Enticingly, Ciarán Foy’s latest, Eli, appears to land somewhere in the middle – a weird, leftfield chiller that Paramount Pictures reportedly didn’t know how to market.

Although not staggeringly original in its execution, it doesn’t fit neatly into any of the conventional horror brackets that non-Blumhouse studios regularly turn out. For one thing, the eponymous Eli (Charlie Shotwell) is a much younger protagonist than most, and the film sticks to its guns and follows him closely through the thrills and spills that ensue.

Afflicted with a rare autoimmune disorder, Eli has spent most of his life confined to his bedroom. However, his parents Rose (Kelly Reilly) and Paul (Max Martini) are spending every last penny on getting their son to a secluded medical facility run by Dr Isabella Horn (Lili Taylor), a gene therapy pioneer with a 100% success rate. But if the clinic has such a spotless record, then why is Eli receiving visitors in the middle of the night?

The film tips its hat to several genre touchstones, but to reveal any one of them would be to give away some of the biggest surprises. Written by David Chirchirillo, and Ian Goldberg, and Richard Naing, the script maximises the mystery box elements for as long as possible. The trouble is that the film has very little to do in the meantime.

With all credit to Shotwell, the film is a little too eager to keep the horror plates spinning, rather than exploring Eli’s predicament. Apparently loath to introspection, the film instead delves elbow-deep into surgical ickiness, sudden reflections in windows and mirrors, and other stock horror tropes that don’t connect up to the as-yet-unveiled conceit.

The casting and the setting could have made this unique, but this is a film that looks as if it was trying to smuggle its premise along the production line. Despite largely playing the hits with the jump-scare moments, Foy does offer some gonzo creative flair in parts. There’s a shot where a prone Eli hyperventilates and the camera zooms in and out with each breath and a later Sam Raimi-brand POV shot that takes place during an operation, but these brief striking moments come few and far between.

It’s all delivered in a quite self-serious fashion, which sets it up for a fall later on. While Reilly, Martini and Taylor all play it very convincingly, the only spark of humour comes in an ambiguous supporting role from Stranger Things' Sadie Sink. If there’s any risk of the final reveal coming off as silly (and believe me, there is), the tone gives the rest of the cast no leeway to play into that. Not every horror film has to have a sense of humour, but this one isn’t actually all that scary either.

Taken altogether, Eli offers up an original idea in an unoriginal presentation. Shelved since January, the film would likely have presented a nightmare for marketers who have to provide full coverage of a genre flick like this without performing a full unboxing of the mystery in advance. The film offers an audaciously gnarly climax to compensate for the slow burn, but it won’t suit viewers who sit down to watch it cold either.

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