Popular culture is filled with cautionary tales of what happens when overly ambitious scientists play god, and from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator the answer has always been the same – success, immediately followed by violent death for pretty much everyone involved. That certainty hasn’t stopped fictional geniuses for trying though, and this weekend brings yet another iteration with The Lazarus Effect.
Frank (Mark Duplass) and his team have been working for some time at a lab in Berkeley, CA in the hopes of finding a way to extend brain activity in order to give patients a bigger chance of survival after traumatic incidents, but their research has taken something of a detour. The four person team – which also includes Frank’s girlfriend Zoe (Olivia Wilde), Clay (Evan Peters) and Niko (Donald Glover) – has discovered a way to bring the recent (or properly preserved) dead back to life. Their first success is a dog, but amid the celebrating the mutt begins to show odd behaviors including the threat of violence.
It’s worth noting that Clay references Stephen King’s Cujo as a way of suggesting to Frank and Zoe that it might not be safe to bring the dog home – but he makes no such mention of the even more relevant and prescient Pet Sematary. Fool.
Outside troubles force the gang to rush a duplication of their experiment, but an accident leaves Zoe dead. A distraught Frank does what any of us would do when faced with a deceased Olivia Wilde – he ignores common sense and the warnings of his team and brings her back to life. Big mistake. Huge!
The setup makes it immediately clear where the film’s going, and with a running time of only 83 minutes it gets there ridiculously fast. The script (by Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater) brings nothing new to the table and instead ends up feeling like the Flatliners/Pet Sematary/Lucy mash-up that nobody asked for. The film’s brevity leaves little time to grow familiar with (or fond of) the characters, but worse, the script waffles as to what’s actually happening.
The religious angle is played up with repeated shots of Zoe’s cross necklace and references to souls and hell, and left equally non-committal is the idea that post-resurrection Zoe is experiencing massive brain activity – she’s using 100% of her noggin you guys! But her newfound telekinetic abilities fail to mesh with the spiritual angle making it feel like ideas are just being tossed out seemingly in an attempt to see what will stick with viewers.
Even beyond all of that the film’s biggest sin is that it just isn’t scary. The horror on display is almost exclusively of the jump scare variety – again, we don’t know these characters at all so we really don’t fear for them – and of those the vast majority involve lights turning off and back on again to reveal something “spooky.”
Honestly, I’ll never understand how ghosts and such have such intricate knowledge of electrical wiring.
For all of the generic and far from scary action here the film remains watchable thanks to its cast and the efforts of director David Gelb. His previous film, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, certainly gave no indication that he’d move into horror, but it shows that he has a strong eye for visuals whether they be dead fish or dead people. There are some visually striking moments here including a haunted hallway and Zoe’s resurrection reveal captured in reflection.
The cast helps elevate this above the level of a Lionsgate direct-to-DVD release too with familiar and talented faces. Wilde gets the showier role – although she shows a weakness in her inability to hold her breath while supposedly being dead – but it’s Peters who stands out above Duplass and Glover. He gives a fun mix of indifference and outrage as well as most of the film’s scattered chuckles.
The Lazarus Effect is horror for non-discriminating genre fans who don’t mind ingesting the same meal again and again. It tastes exactly as you’d expect and is devoid of nutritional value, but hey, at least it looks pretty sexy in the bowl.
The Upside: Actors are talented and visually appealing; some solid effects work; short running time
The Downside: Can’t commit to a narrative; overly reliant on jump scares, especially the lights off/lights on variety; underwhelming ending
On the Side: This is Jeremy Slater’s feature debut, but Luke Dawson previously wrote 2008’s Shutter.