Review: The Lazarus Effect

Sometimes a horror movie comes along that defies your every expectation. Sometimes, you are surprised, and instead of getting the drab, by the numbers film that was advertised, the film you walk into is considerably more intelligent and interesting that you were initially expecting to give it credit for. Sadly, The Lazarus Effect is not that film. Instead, it’s a film that makes a lot of interesting promises at the outset, and then devolves into an unoriginal, barely coherent mess by the time its 90 minutes are up.

Mark Duplass and Olivia Wilde play Frank and Zoe – scientists developing a serum to regenerate brain tissue and give medical professionals a bigger window in which to safely bring patients back when they die on the table. An initial experiment on a dog cadaver not only brings it back to life, but they find that it is regenerating cellular and brain activity at a very fast pace, and even activating new parts of the brain. When they try to replicate the results, Zoe is electrocuted and killed. Naturally, the best course of action is to try the serum out on her, and naturally, she doesn’t come back quite right.

At first, the story plays with some interesting ideas. Writers Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater set up an exploration of theology vs science, promising to delve into the mystery of what happens to us when we die. But the story ignores all of the more intriguing premises established and just goes for every cliche in the book. Though certainly watchable, it doesn’t deliver on any of the promises that it sets up in the first act, and doesn’t even succeed in being an entertaining scarefest. It telegraphs every turn, every jump and every development a mile away, and fails to offer anything we haven’t seen a thousand times before.

The film is mired in flawed logic, unrealistic courses of action and tons of horror movie cliches. I don’t need my horror movie science to be spot on – I know we’re all here for fun, but I do demand my scientist characters actually behave like scientists, and everybody knows you never bring a newly-resurrected dog home as the family pet the night he suddenly regains life. Duh.

This kind of shoddy logic continues through the film, and by the finale, it’s as if the writers were rolling dice to see which tired trope inject into the plot next. Hallway lights begin clicking off one by one (at multiple points), a creepy red ball rolls out of nowhere – you name it – you’ve seen it all before. There is even a record player in the lab for the soul purpose of scaring the audience during the finale.*

Though incredibly underutilized, the cast is a major point of strength for the film, particularly Duplass and Wilde. Despite being saddled with crap science and questionable motivations, they still have a couple of chances to let their innate charm break through and you get a small window into the lives and minds of these characters. It’s not nearly enough time, but it’s sufficient to get you on their side. Donald Glover, Evan Peters and Sarah Bolger round the team, though their characters are given considerably fewer opportunities to be more than stage dressing.

One of the major frustrations is that The Lazarus Effect introduces all these ideas about the death experience, about science and the unexplainable, about what happens to you after you die, and then completely fail to cash in. The result of Zoe’s resurrection has very little to do with the afterlife in the way the writers set it up early on. All of the interesting ideas get dumped in favor or a more pedestrian approach. Director David Gelb shoots it as a possession flick – blacked out eyes, creepy grey veins, supernatural powers, but it is really just a poorly realized, horror version of Lucy. Zoe comes back from the dead, the abilities of her brain are magnified by this serum, and for whatever reason, that turns her evil.

It’s one of those movies that you can sense started out a lot smarter than it ended up. There are so many tangents at play that don’t wrap up cleanly and you really feel like the script went through so many cuts and revisions that it can’t even identify itself anymore. Which is a shame – I would have liked to have seen the movie they hinted to early on in the film. Instead, this is just a garbled mess that takes no ownership of itself, and instead just plays it safe (and boring) at every turn.

*Though, that offered some accidental entertainment – when the record player scratched to life in an attempt to shock the audience with a poorly-placed jump scare, my brain interpreted the scratch as a gigantic fart noise. Farts are funny.