The Lazarus Effect kicks off with a super cool, stylized opening credit sequence worthy of those oh-so-popular cable shows. Unfortunately they don’t last very long, ending abruptly while the remainder of the credits appear over a typical intro scene of main characters arriving at work. It feels as though the title designers showed a sample of what they could create, and the producers decided the demo was sufficient. The opening credits are a microcosm of the bigger problems with The Lazarus Effect: you can start with something strong but as soon as you start cutting corners it cheapens everything.
Scientists/ lovers Frank (Mark Duplass) and Zoe (Olivia Wilde) lead a team working on a serum that is originally intended to prolong brain functions for that critical period of time when doctors can still save a patient. The other half of the team is played by Evan Peters (X-Men: Days of Future Past) and Donald Glover (Community). Once they crack the code, they realize they overshot their original goal and the serum can actually bring the deceased back to life. They test it on a dog first, and once this dog is brought back, he steals every scene he’s in. It’s probably our human projection, but his face seems to express a peculiar “I shouldn’t be here” feeling that is what the whole movie should have explored. In fact, they could have even made the entire movie about the dog and still avoided Cujo/ Pet Cemetery/ The Thing territory. One of the things that works so well about this part of the story is the animal’s inability to verbally articulate its life after death experience, so the film briefly maintains some mystery and ambiguity. The canine they chose was also probably the best casting choice made as well… the rest of the actors can perform, but they are known mostly for indie dramas and comedy and often have a similar “what am I doing here?” expression, but for different reasons. Director David Gelb, best known for the hit doc Jiro Dreams of Sushi, is another odd choice that could have paid off but doesn’t.
The concept and the build-up are promising, with a mid-paced 45 minute lead-in that is decent except when it occasionally resorts to cliché scare tactics meant to make viewers jump and assure them that things are going to get scary. Of course they eventually have to try the serum on a person, which happens after an accident in the lab electrocutes Zoe. Frank goes against the wishes of the rest of the team and injects the serum into his fiancée’s lifeless brain, bringing back what at first appears to be a relatively normal Zoe. Instead of leaving the lab immediately following this rogue experiment, they all hang out and wait for things to g0 from bad to worse. While this is the part that is supposed to deliver the horror movie those lame “BOO”s teased, the last half hour just devolves into utter ridiculousness (the film only runs a merciful 80 minutes).
Unlike the dog, Zoe can articulate her experience, which was a literal hell. Part of her is still there, every time she closes her eyes she revisits her most traumatic childhood memory. This still seems like an improvement over actually being a full time resident in hell, but she decides to take out her anxiety on her friends who brought her back. Oh, and the serum also gave her extremely powerful psychic and telekinetic abilities, because she’s using her entire brain now or something. Cue murderous rampage and more poor decisions made by all involved.
Blumhouse Productions is known for setting up successful genre franchises such as Paranormal Activity, The Purge, and Insidious. The Lazarus Effect feels like a good idea that just got Blumhoused. They took what could have been a modern day Flatliners and made it something that with a little luck and lot of advertising will get enough teens and tweens in the seats to justify a sequel. The scare/ gore level is pretty PG and they probably spent as much on the marketing as they did on the production, so they may actually succeed in this. In this business, there’s nothing unnatural about taking a dead idea and breathing false life into it, whether we want it or not.