The intersection of horror and science fiction is a graveyard littered with the corpses of films that fail to thrill or intrigue. It’s a subgenre the progeny of which rarely succeeds by the standards of either genre. For every John Carpenter’s The Thing, there a dozens that fail to put the pieces together. Sadly, The Lazarus Effect arrives as yet another corpse for the pyre of sci-fi horror.
Mark Duplass (Safety Not Guaranteed) and Olivia Wilde (Tron: Legacy) star as Frank and Zoe, two medical PhDs heading up a small team of researchers working to bring people back from the dead using the aptly named “Lazarus Serum” and our good old reanimating friend: electricity. After four years of failure, the team manages to bring a dog back from the dead, although the franken-dog soon starts exhibiting strange and aggressive behavior. Just when animal trials begin to show some success, a shadowy corporation yanks their funding and steals their research. Desperate for something to show for their work, they break back into their lab and attempt to replicate the experiment, leading to a freak accident that kills Zoe. Thankfully, they work in a lab that specializes in bringing people back to life. Unfortunately, what comes back isn’t exactly Zoe. And that’s when things really begin to fall apart.
The Lazarus Effect is the latest from the Blumhouse factory of low budget horror films. With films like Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and The Purge on his resume, producer Jason Blum is proving himself to be the modern day Roger Corman, albeit with a slightly more mainstream sensibility. Although, credit where credit is due, Blum also produced last year’s excellent Oscar dark horse Whiplash, and the HBO gay rights film The Normal Heart, so there’s a hope he’s branching out. But The Lazarus Effect is right in his wheelhouse. It’s a $5 million horror film that takes place almost entirely in one location. There’s definitely a sense of economy at play here, but the film’s problems have nothing to do with its budget.
As far as sci-fi horror goes, The Lazarus Effect faceplants hard on both the science and the horror. Let’s start with the cardinal sin: this film is not scary. Horror films don’t need to terrify to be successful, but a good scare can go a long way towards drowning out a film’s stupidity. The scares to be had in this film are entirely of the jump variety. A whip pan and a musical sting is not suspense. It’s lazy filmmaking. While the characters spend most of the film trapped in an underground lab, there’s never a sense of urgency or even claustrophobia. Perhaps it’s because we never get a good idea of what this place looks like, or maybe it’s because this is a comically enormous lab for a team that consists of four scientists and a student videographer. Director David Gelb proves himself so incapable of sustaining any amount of tension in this film, one wonders if he’s ever actually seen a horror film. This is Gelb’s second film; his first is the exceptional 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, so Gelb’s clearly got directing chops. They just aren’t necessarily narrative film chops; they’re certainly not horror chops.
Blumhouse films aren’t known for featuring rich dramatic roles, but they usually do have characters in them. The Lazarus Effect has cardboard cutouts. The research team is rounded out by Niko (Donald Glover, Community), a tech wizard nursing a vague romantic history with Zoe, and Clay (Evan Peters, American Horror Story), doing his best to balance his scientist and stoner identities. He spends the majority of the film with an e-cigarette in his hand in lieu of a joint. Sarah Bolger (The Spiderwick Chronicles) plays Eva, a film student documenting the experiment. She’s there mostly so the film can have another female character once Zoe becomes the antagonist. While most of the performances fall pretty flat, Wilde’s Zoe proves the most disappointing. What should have been a journey from well-intentioned-but-troubled scientist to full on psychopath becomes a mere shift from generic leading lady to generic demon woman.
The performances are dull, but the main culprit is the script, penned by Luke Dawson (Shutter) and newcomer Jeremy Slater, who is also attached to the upcoming Fantastic 4 film, so watch out. The script is littered with forced exposition and overexplanation, most of which falls on Glover and Peters. The Lazarus Effect is an inherently silly film that is simultaneously aware of its own absurdity but determined to take itself seriously. Around the halfway point, Glover is forced to choke out the old “we only use 10% of our brain” trope, and from then on, the film plays out like Luc Besson’s Lucy told as a low budget horror film.
Most of The Lazarus Effect’s meat is in its discussion of what the afterlife might be on a neurological level, but what could have been thought-provoking is merely gag inducing. The film does not even make good on having a psychic antagonist (oh yeah, forgot to mention that part). The death sequences in this film aren’t just banal, they’re downright pedestrian. Gelb takes a telekinetic demon woman, traps her and her victims in a lab with lots of medical equipment, and still can’t cobble together a frightening death. You can argue that the film’s PG-13 rating is to blame here, but I’m fairly certain that the problem has more to do with creative bankruptcy then it does the MPAA.
The Verdict: 1 out of 5
The Lazarus Effect stands at the intersection of Carrie, Re-animator, and The Thing. This is terrain filled with thematic and narrative potential, and that might be what makes the film so disappointing. Its plot is riddled with contrivances, convenient twists, and gaping holes. The franken-dog subplot is completely discarded halfway through the film because evidently even The Lazarus Effect can’t be bothered with the plot of The Lazarus Effect. The narrative mess would be more acceptable if the film had the good graces to have fun with its own absurdity, but it seems convinced that it’s asking “big questions” and takes itself entirely too seriously. Based on its tiny budget, The Lazarus Effect is almost certainly bound to make money, and with an end stinger that leaves the door open for more films, one gets the creeping sensation for franchise inevitability. Hopefully even Jason Blum will see clear to put this film out to pasture, and have the good graces not to bring it back from the dead.