What is to us an irradiated world is blue skies, sunshine and green grass to Eli Miller (Charlie Shotwell). Should he walk around without his blue hazmat suit, or when said suit has a dime-sized rip, he will turn into a walking red, vessels pressing against the skin and insides coiling from a fiery sensation. To (experimental) treatment he goes, but as promos have shown Eli might be walking into a lie. Or liE. So will we, considering after all the deliciously terrifying setup — perhaps some of the finest in recent times — the film reveals a truth that insta-damns it to silly valley.
It may not be apparent at first, but Eli and the recently released (and reviewed) In the Tall Grass are twins. Same Netflix parents, same horror DNA, and same journey of starting out decent and ending delinquent. As Vincenzo Natali had done for his film, writers David Chirchirillo, Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing want to add more to the core horror experience — “spooky hospital” in this case — with the wonkiest of technique. It wouldn’t be nice to reveal what Eli is actually is for those who haven’t seen it, but it’s safe to say the result will more likely to court “huh”s rather than the intended “whoa”s. Assuming it’s this very twist that sent the script to the 2015 Black List, for it to work, or at least have a semblance of success, there should be organic characters and a proper build before the swing. Both are missing here, seeing how everybody is inhabiting frameworks from writing textbooks and is the moment when the truth spills out is anything but seamless. The weak character work does the most damage here, affecting the performances by undercutting their substance. We’re supposed to sympathize with Eli even if he’s angry, but instead we find an opening to claim his outbursts are a product of petulance. There is a “pick a side” game here thanks to the presence of the pacifist mom Rose (Kelly Reilly) or the aggro-realist father Paul (Max Martini), yet why play when both are rendered with thorough flatness. Presumably Big Bad Dr. Horn (Lili Taylor) is rendered as the healer, yet she is plagued with one-noteness that contributes to the endgame’s failure to sizzle — although whenever she can Taylor never forgets to let her character exudes obscurity.
Poor Sadie Sink the most, though. While her character Haley is envisioned to be the know-it-all girl-next-door whose spark is akin to Max in Stranger Things, what she is in the end is a writing appendage that should have been removed.
That said, Eli doesn’t disappoint in the scares department. Then again, it’s the one element you can count on when Ciarán Foy is at the helm. Like in Citadel and Sinister II, he knows how to get the shoulder camera to work with the staging, lending to the boos authored by a figure too flexible to be human or a breather you can’t quite see a ferocity that is long-missed. But “third time’s the charm” seems to be not the case here as Foy is again tripped by the story’s — another children-centric scary story — need to be more than what it is, again a victim to the false belief that the second form of the tale complements the first. Let us pray for another attempt that will reflect the filmmaker’s promising trait, in other words the truth…
… or the non-liE.