Even though they have arguably been around since Frankenstein and the inception of horror, medical horror films have been in retirement for quite some time. American Mary and the remake of Flatliners are perhaps the most recent examples for the 2010s, even though it’s a setting ripe with horrific potential, as proven by the popular franchise Re-Animator. Netflix’s newest horror film Eli documents the horrors of the cost of private medical care in the United States alongside the usual fears that accompany a hospital setting: patient vulnerability during treatment, suspicious staff members with questionable motivations, and the possibility that the hospital itself might be haunted. It also raises several interesting questions regarding informed consent: how much should a patient be allowed to know about his or her condition if it puts the entire world in jeopardy?
The desperate parents of a small, chronically ill boy named Eli (Charlie Shotwell) arrive at a remote medical facility run by private doctor Isabella Horn (Lili Taylor). Eli cannot be exposed to the outside air because unknown allergen causes him to break out in red sores all over his body. At first, both Eli and his parents are overjoyed that Eli can walk around the facility without his decontamination suit. However, Eli begins to suspect that Dr Horn is not telling the truth after the spirits of several former patients begin to haunt Eli, etching the word “Lie” over and over. With the help of a local girl who appears at his bedroom window (Sadie Sink), Eli begins to investigate Dr Horn and uncovers a gruesome secret about what is really going on at the private facility.
It’s challenging to keep a good twist secret, especially since most horror fans have been exposed to every type of surprise ending there is. However, Eli was successful because it kept me thinking I was watching one kind of film when I was really watching another. The set up was so strong that I really didn’t see the ending coming, and once the reveal was made, it kept with the original integrity of the premise. I think it will hold up with films like The Orphan, where even if the big secret is spread through word of mouth, it won’t matter because of how fluid the narrative is.
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As I mentioned before, at the heart of this film are several modern-day horrors for those of us living in the United States and with privatised healthcare. It’s repeatedly shown throughout the film that Eli’s parents have gone bankrupt searching for a cure for his illness, and that their marriage is on the rocks as a result, which is a common problem for many desperate parents in a very similar situation. Also, the suspicion of Dr. Horn’s motivations is a common fear for patients who believe their privatised care providers are literally squeezing the life out of them, both financially and physically, at the expense of treatments that may or may not work. Likewise, Eli explores the complexity of what it means to be chronically ill and how patients are routinely denied agency and informed consent often at their own expense.
This film is also chock-full of star-studded performances by the likes of Kelly Reilly (Sherlock Holmes, True Detective), Lili Taylor (The Conjuring, Hemlock Grove), and Sadie Sink (Stranger Things). Director Ciarán Foy is also known for his work for Blumhouse and Sinister 2, as well as the Irish “hoodie-horror” film Citadel. If you liked The Conjuring, this film has a very similar feel: the ghosts are almost never shown except out of the corner of your eye or reflected in a mirror. Fans of horror films starring creepy kids, like The Omen or Children of the Corn, will also appreciate this film immensely. Overall, Eli is a rare Netflix gem that delivers the perfect amount of surprise and terror, especially if the idea of hospitals already makes your skin crawl.
This Eli review was written by Kellye McBride, TV editor at Sublime Horror. Read Kellye’s recent Marianne review. You can find her on Twitter at @kellyemmcbride or on her website, kellyemcbrideediting.com.