Netflix Originals are always hit or miss—especially at the rate at which the company has been churning them out. When a diamond in the rough appears, such as the incredible show Marianne, it makes the subscription fee feel worth every penny. However, a mediocre Netflix Original can often feel even more disappointing than a flat-out bad movie. ELI, a new Netflix mystery-horror film unfortunately belongs in the latter of the two categories. It’s not surprising considering the movie’s troubled production history (it was initially acquired by Paramount until they decided they couldn’t figure out how to market the film, and then acquired by Netflix). Having watched the film, I can understand where Paramount were coming from. The film isn’t necessarily bad, or unwatchable, but it’s a tricky concept to sell—especially when its executed in a frequently confusing and anticlimactic manner.
ELI follows a father and mother as they seek help for their son Eli (Charlie Shotwell), who suffers from an unnamed, deadly auto-immune disease. It would appear that Eli is allergic to nearly everything, to the point of his skin breaking out in a terrible burn-like rash, and nearly suffocating. To combat the symptoms of the disease, Eli has to quarantine himself in hermetically-sealed tents, and can only roam freely when covered up in a hazmat suit. Desperate to find a cure, Eli’s parents bring him to a remote, experimental medical facility headed by Doctor Isabella Horn (Lili Taylor). Dr. Horn claims to be able to treat Eli’s illness by injecting a serum into his marrow that will “reset” his immune system. The treatments are violent and rigorous, and as Dr. Horn starts Eli on a course of medication, Eli begins to experience unnerving night terrors and hallucinations. Dr. Horn insists the visions are a side effect of the medication, but Eli firmly believes what he is seeing to be real, and pleads with his parents to believe him. When his parents side with Dr. Horn, and shrug their son off, Eli begins to investigate on his own, to try and uncover the disturbing truth behind Dr. Horn and her facility.
All the while, Eli befriends a girl from the outside, named Haley (Sadie Sink) who serves as Eli’s only friend, communicating to him through the paned glass of the facility. Haley acts as an agent of truth, aiding Eli in his search for answers. From here on out the plot plays out in a relatively slow and predictable fashion, rarely ever reaching the level of shock and suspense it grasps for. This is the root of the film’s issues—it can’t honestly decide which type of film it wants to be, resulting in uneven storytelling and constant tonal shifts. Early on the film plays like a melodrama, and the horror elements frequently take a backseat. The second and third act see the film turn into more of a mystery, but one built on a flimsy foundation. The characters feel unfinished and underdeveloped, and the finer details of the story are largely glazed over (at one point Eli’s father sums up his treatment as “good cells fighting bad cells”). Part of what made the film fail for me was the lack of chemistry between the central actors. Eli’s family simply aren’t believable, and the drama the film wastes so much time in amplifying ends up just becoming a dull bore.
The scares are a highlight—there’s even a few genuinely creepy moments, but you’ve already seen most of them if you’ve watched the trailer, and the film never fully commits to being a full-on horror movie. The concept certainly has potential, as proven by the film’s closing minutes, which finally turn up the pace and excitement much too late. Because the tone of the film is constantly changing, it never allows itself to settle into its own narrative, leaving the overall plot feeling muddled and confusing. At multiple times I had no clue what was supposed to be going on, but also felt uninspired to figure it all out. There’s a good movie hidden somewhere within ELI, but it’s not to be found in this iteration. In spite of some solid elements, such as Bear McCreary’s haunting score, and Lili Taylor’s brilliant performance as the creepy Dr. Horn, ELI feels convoluted and poorly-paced. It’s a film that can’t decide if it wants to be a medical mystery, or a supernatural horror film, and its indecision ends up being its fatal flaw. If you’re looking for an eerie forgettable genre film to throw on late at night, ELI may just be entertaining-enough, but if you’re looking for a deeper, more fulfilling fright, look elsewhere.