‘The Lazarus Effect’ Review: This Resurrection Horror Thriller Should Have Stayed Dead

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Relativity

How many times in your life have you snuck up on someone and scared them? Three, maybe four times? The Lazarus Effect is the kind of horror movie where people do that constantly. It’s basically their standard greeting; instead of “Hello!” they jump on people from behind, sometimes while wearing pig masks. It doesn’t make much sense, but they don’t do it because it’s logical — they do it because this is a bargain basement horror film and you take the scares wherever you can get them.

The plot involves the reckless and obviously doomed experiments of a couple of scientists, Frank (Mark Duplass) and Zoe (Olivia Wilde), their assistants (Donald Glover and Evan Peters), and a camerawoman (Sarah Bolger) on hand to document their work (and ask important questions on behalf of the audience). Frank and Zoe have developed something they call “the Lazarus serum.” They claim it’s designed to “prolong that period when you can safely bring someone back from the dead.” But by the time the film finds Frank and Zoe, they’re already testing it on long-dead animals. After a few failed attempts and an obscene amount of techno-gibberish, they perfect their formula and resurrect a blind old dog.

The experiment, though, is not without consequences. The dog’s cataracts mysteriously heal, but he refuses to eat or drink and mopes around the laboratory. Frank and Zoe take him home, and he opens their bedroom door while Zoe sleeps and looms over her in the bed. Someone in the lab warns he could “go Cujo” at any moment. Guess what happens next.

These scenes, though predictable, are the best in The Lazarus Effect, because they get close to becoming the first-ever full-blown doggie slasher film, which is both a hilarious and terrifying idea all at once (and the animal actor has the most perfect I-was-in-doggie-heaven-and-these-jerks-brought-me-back face). Unfortunately, the pooch is tossed aside for more Lazarus serum experiments — this time with a human subject — and a quick descent into generic, low-grade horror fare.

Occasionally between the jump scares, the movie threatens to veer into thoughtful territory, but not for long. Frank is an atheist, Zoe a believer, and they briefly broach the subject of the theological implications of their work. “If you’re going to ask the big questions, you have to be prepared for the answers,” Zoe insists when Frank maintains his stance that the afterlife is a myth based on chemical reactions in the brain. If only The Lazarus Effect really did ask the big questions instead of resorting over and over to the most tired and hackneyed horror cliches. By the end, characters are literally chasing each other in the dark as lights flicker on and off. This stuff was tired by the time Wes Craven made Scream almost 20 years ago.

The screenplay by Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater does posit a version of hell that is genuinely disturbing. But at its core The Lazarus Effect is what I call a Dumb Genius Movie. Its characters are supposed to be the most brilliant minds on the planet but they behave like mouth-breathing simpletons and make rash decisions that any ordinary person can see are profoundly stupid. Mark Duplass’ Frank appears caring and kind, invents something extraordinary, and transforms, apparently overnight, into Dr. Frankenstein’s brainless, more evil cousin.

Duplass is one of my favorite indie filmmakers, and unlike some of his colleagues in the so-called “mumblecore” movement, he’s shown frequent interest in genre movies. One of his first features was a loose and lively riff on slasher films called Baghead; just last year he produced and starred in a smart and engrossing sci-fi flick called The One I Love. Like The Lazarus Effect, those were low-budget affairs, but what they lacked in fancy effects they made up in intelligence and sensitivity. They offered a more thoughtful alternative to the flashy but hollow Hollywood versions of these sorts of movies.

Sadly, The Lazarus Effect is the flashy but hollow version of this sort of movie — and it’s not even all that flashy. It’s cheap and dumb; the worst of both worlds. And Duplass, who plays a terrific everyman, is miscast as a ethically compromised genius. He’s not alone; the film squanders the comedic talents of Wilde and Glover as well. They crack a couple jokes in the early scenes, then become the interchangeable lambs to the slaughter.

The Lazarus Effect was directed by David Gelb. You would never know it from watching this disposable junk, but Gelb’s previous film was Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a beautiful and powerful documentary about a master sushi chef. Jiro’s food appears simple, but that simplicity masks a lifetime spent perfecting flavors and techniques. Horror movies look basic too; a jump scare here, a flicker of lights there. But there is a hidden art to the good ones that The Larazus Effect lacks. So save your money and watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi instead. It provides a more meaningful consideration of the subject of mortality, and it’s streaming right now on Netflix.

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