Netflix Horror Movie 'Eli' Review & Ending Explained: Ghosts, Medicine or Both?

Eli (Charlie Shotwell) lives in a mylar bubble and wears sterilized, vacuum-packed clothes because he's allergic to the world. His dreams of walking in the grass without a hazmat suit turn into nightmares of his skin burning, as he collapses into the toxic ground. When he breaks out in hives, his parents take him to see a specialist who might offer a cure, a "miracle worker" named Rose (Kelly Reilly). Despite the horror movie trappings, the sterilization procedures at Dr. Isabella Horn's (Lili Taylor) immunological facility are high-tech, using gene therapy to treat his genetic abnormalities.

Is Eli hallucinating ghosts as a side effect of a mysterious gene therapy, or is he the unwitting guinea pig of medical monsters? Netflix

But something seems to be haunting the clinic, reaching out to Eli from the windows and beyond the floor-to-ceiling glass quarantining the mansion's sterile areas. After seeing—or possibly hallucinating—a burnt and mutilated boy while undergoing a brutal bone marrow procedure, Eli begins to suspect not everything is on the level at Horn's clinic. His suspicions are confirmed by Haley (Sadie Sink), a girl his age who visits him from outside the clinic's glass. Soon he's seeing children everywhere—seemingly ghosts of past patients like him. The treatments become tortures, like a waking brain surgery to push stem cell therapy through the blood-brain barrier. But Eli's parents pressure him to continue with the procedures.

Director Ciarán Foy (Sinister 2), working from a rewritten original script by David Chirchirillo (Cheap Thrills), knows how to craft an effective scare, though the breadth of Eli's horror imagination is disappointingly narrow—no matter how effectively Eli deploys fogged glass and creepy children in reflections. It's strange watching repeated variations on the same formulaic scares.

But Eli is benefited greatly by Shotwell's performance as a pleasingly active protagonist, especially when compared to other sick children of horror. Eli's investigations help the movie named for him proceed at a quick pace, favoring new revelations to the congested grief and washed-out tone of the movie's more obvious influences, particularly 2007's The Orphanage. Plus, Eli saves some of its most imaginative horror images for the movie's final act.

By this point, you may be wondering whether Eli is a typical ghost movie or something more unique. Answering that question, however, involves spoiling the movie's biggest plot twists.

Since Eli earlier voiced the possibility, it's not much of a surprise when we learn that Dr. Horn has killed previous child patients and their ghosts have returned to warn him of the misdeeds. But after Eli discovers that all of her patients die in the third stage of their treatment, events take a strange turn when he finds a photograph of Horn and her nurses in the garb of a mysterious religious order. Shortly thereafter Eli discovers a basement shrine, which watches over a well where the bodies of the previous child patients are bound in ritual fashion.

It's a hard turn in the plot, but preferable to the "ghosts-versus-hallucination" dance most of Eli's horror movie peers belabor. The truth comes out. Eli was never sick to begin with. His parents made up his illness to protect the world from their son, who was sired by the Devil. While Dr. Horn really does believe she can cure genetic devilry through gene therapy, the treatments burning his veins are tannis root and holy water.

"The gene therapy would've worked if he weren't so strong," Dr. Horn says. "He's too far gone, but he can still be saved."

You know what that means: time for a child sacrifice with Eli's false father (Max Martini) in full support. Rather than internalizing his telekinetic power, making himself sick, Eli goes on the attack in a small-scale but impressively violent ending, which combines searing religious imagery with a child rampage worthy of Carrie. After burning the clinic down, Eli joins his half-sister, Haley, and they set off to visit their father.

A much better twist than if Haley were just another ghost. Netflix

So why didn't Eli make it to theaters instead washing up on Netflix months after its intended release? Eli may be of a limited scope, with a small cast and effective scares, but there's certainly been worse horror movies to hit theater screens in recent years. Could it be that, even in 2019, Paramount got cold feet at the prospect of selling a movie where the villains are creepy Christian fanatics, who get their just rewards from a heroic devil-child?

Foy offered his own theory in an interview with Dread Central. "They didn't really know how to market it," he said. "Eli would've played great theatrically, but at the same time, if you can't market the movie, then no one's going to see it."


You can see Eli now, streaming on Netflix.