Saturday, June 27, 2020

Eli (USA, 2019)

While director Ciarán Foy didn't exactly make waves with Sinister II (2015), his sophomore feature film, that somewhat listless and predictable movie did reveal a possible talent for achieving an enduring and appropriate dank atmosphere as well as the effective direction of child actors. But if both were merely inferred in Sinister II, they are proven hands down in Eli, Foy's latest feature film horror, a movie that is far better made and far more effective than Paramount's ignoble relegation of distribution rights to Netfux, where it premiered and is now found, would indicate. That the dinosaur of a movie production studio chose not to try to give the movie a real cinematic release reveals a substantial lack of foresight on their part, if not mental ossification, for if flawed-but-effective films like The Conjuring (2013 / trailer) and it's tangential sequel Annabelle (2014 / trailer) could become both hits and successful, semi-separate franchises, a movie like Eli surely could have, too, had it been handled properly. Rich in atmosphere, well-acted (particularly by the kids), and often quite scary, Eli is an efficient horror movie steeped in ever-increasing dread that has more real scares than jump scares and also packs one of the hardest and most unexpected twist endings seen in a long time.
Trailer to
Eli opens on a note that is both sunny and summery, but it is quickly revealed to be a lie: a wishful dream that segues into a nightmare before returning to the real life of Eli Miller (Charlie Shotwell), a young boy apparently deathly allergic to everything. He and his obviously financially-strapped parents, Rose (Kelly Reilly of Eden Lake [2008 / trailer]) and Paul Miller (Max Martini of Sabotage [2014 / trailer]), are on the way to their last hope for a cure, a sanatorium deep in backwaters of Louisiana run by Dr. Isabella Horn (Lili Taylor of Leatherface [2017 / trailer], The Notorious Bettie Page [2005 / trailer], John Waters' Pecker [1998 / trailer] and more), who claims to have previously cured three other children suffering the same affliction. But the safe haven proves quickly to be anything but safe, though whether the danger lies in the ghosts that truly come to haunt Eli in the house or the treatment itself is very much open to question.
The basic atmosphere of dreary loss and hopelessness fully infuses the film from the initial dream sequence onwards: the world is a constant and deadly threat to the young boy, as is already very apparent in the run-in he and his parents have with the some of America's typical citizens when checking out of the last cheap & sleazy motel on their journey to the "safe house". But if the physically real can be left behind by driving away, Eli is unable to flee the "safe" walls of the sanatorium once the ghosts there go beyond making themselves known and actually begin to get hands-on with him — unluckily, as the ghosts only give him their attention, and not his parents, his panic is easily and quickly dismissed as due to the delicate nature he has acquired owing to his sickness.
Eli uses a unhurried pace interspaced with moments of terror, beginning first with beer-swilling rednecks and then with words writing themselves of fogged-up windows and escalating to unexpected ghostly appearances, but hardly crescendoing with physical attacks of the spectral or the apparent betrayal of those one trusts the most. For most of the movie, the viewer is as lost as Eli, unsure of what one should — or even could — do in a situation as hopeless as the potentially deathly ill as Eli finds himself. And if the kid initially seems wimpy and almost unlikable, little by little he become a figure of identification, someone the viewer begins to root for, if only because the viewer can recognize the spark of a strong will for survival that awakens in Eli. An extremely futile desire for survival, however, for it would seem doomed to lead Eli to his own demise no matter where he turns or what he does — re-entry into the world outside, after all, would death for him.
By the time Eli pulls its sucker punch — a sucker punch that easily equals the best ever pulled by [yawn] M. Night Shyamalan, the one pulled in the final scenes of The Sixth Sense (1999 / trailer) — the viewer has come to truly worry for Eli, to identify with him, and to hope that he somehow manages to find a solution for what appears, by all accounts, to be a hopeless situation. Kudos to director Ciarán Foy and his cast for taking the audience on such a decent ride, and for building and sustained such a pervading sense of horrific no-way-out — a sense of horror that is hardly dispersed by the movie's extremely left-field ending, an ending the infers consequences that will far transcend anything that occurred in the sanatorium.
We here at a wasted life tend to be indifferent to against remakes, as few are ever even half as successful as that (2004 / trailer) of the original Dawn of the Dead (1978 / trailer), but after watching both Sinister II and Eli, we cannot help but think that should anyone ever come up with the idea to redo some flawed non-classic or semi-classic, forgotten kiddie-terror movies of the past — say, The Child (1977) or The Blood on Satan's Claw (1971 / trailer) or Bloody Birthday (1981 / trailer) or The Children (1980 / trailer) or Devil Times Five (1974 / trailer) — Ciarán Foy could well be the perfect person for the project. He's got a talent with directing kids, one equaled only by his ability to create atmosphere. He's a director to watch, to say the least…

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