For a brief shining moment, it looked like The Lazarus Effect might deliver. It seemed familiar, especially when the trailer trotted out Olivia Wilde in full blown black eye contacts. We fright fans expected evil. We expected demonic possession. We expected Mark Duplass as Sam Neill and his comely costar as the famous interstellar spaceship that literally went to Hell and back in Event Horizon. Add in some gore, a collection of compliant victim fodder, and a “oh wow!” twist at the end, and you’ve got something to send shivers down your spine — in addition to ferocious February weather.
Except that’s not what happens — not by a long shot. Instead, we wind up with an 88 minute excuse for exposition, the audience constantly reminded that this is NOT a supernatural story, but one where science is trumping the tendency to allow an already troubled person to work out their inner demons externally. In this case, a research scientist named Zoe (Olivia Wilde, deserving much better) is haunted by an incident from her past that she’s still trying to make up for decades later. She’s tried religion and routine, but nothing seems to keep her from the nightly horrors of her dreams.
Her partner, Frank (Duplass) is also working on a major medical breakthrough. Together with their colleagues Niko (Donald Glover) and Clay (Evan Peters), they’ve managed to make a neural serum that regenerates life. Called “Lazarus” the team is just trying out the formula on dead animals when tragedy strikes. In full view of a videographer (Sarah Bolger) new to the team, Frank breaks protocol. He brings a human being back to life (it’s Zoe — the previews have already ruined that for you) and the consequences are soon as dire as they are derivative. While she believes she’s back from the afterlife, the crew soon learns that Zoe is now capable of accessing 100% of her brain, and with it, a whole lot of new psychic skills.
So Zoe is not the second coming of the Event Horizon. She’s not Regan MacNeil or This is the End‘s Jonah Hill. No, she’s just a sad, angry woman with a lot of pent up guilt who needs an outlet for her issues, and finds it with a drug that gives her superhuman brain powers. Give her a gun and an agenda and she’s Luc Besson’s Lucy. Have her kill everyone in the lab with her engorged gray matter and she’s Patrick (the 1978 Australian horror film). As usual, the trailer was a lie, a come-on to the average scary movie fan who can’t tell a exorcist from exercise. It promised possession, but it gives us nothing but neural networks.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with this approach. In fact, it would bring something fresh to the whole “playing God” element of the medical thriller. But director Brian Gelb is not brave enough to push his man vs. nature arguments to their logical ends. Instead, he keeps playing with the “spiritual” asides in Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater’s script, leading the viewer to believe there is some actual paranormal activity going on here. It all comes down to editorial decisions. If you want to keep us guessing, get rid of much of Mark Duplass’ dialogue. He’s the one playing party pooper to all the possible Devil derring-do being discussed. Also, stop making Zoe’s flashbacks so American Horror Story-like.
It’s this battle which ultimately sinks The Lazarus Effect. Since the movie takes so long getting to the supposedly scary stuff, we have to stay focused on either the characters or the content, and both fail. We’ve already talked about the tendency to confuse the otherworldly with OMNI Magazine. But if Zoe and Frank and Niko were something other than flat, one dimensional story cogs, we might care. Instead, only Clay comes across as someone quasi-likable, though he’s also a raging cliche: the dopey dim bulb pot-smoking slacker who just so happens to know all the answers to all the experiment’s sticking points.
Then there is the desire to keep everything PG-13. We quickly get the message that Zoe is going to go gonzo on her fellow researchers. Her return from the grave makes it obvious that something severely wrong is working on her morality (and, in the end, we learn what it is). So when the first “kill” comes, it’s underwhelming at best: a few insinuations, a small amount of blood. The rest revolve around getting people to choke, pushing people into walls, and doing everything possible to keep the gore down to a bare minimum. Now, no one is asking for an Inside-like experience, but bloodshed can have impact. Without it, The Lazarus Effect has to rely on the many weaknesses previously outlined.
Still, for a horror movie set in a single location and built around rebuffing old “back from the dead” ideas, The Lazarus Effect is okay. Not great. Not good. Not even average. Just a okay experience draped in a lot of unrealized ambition. It’s a shame, really, as there is a lot of potential in the idea. There’s also a lot of genre trope teasing that ends up being nothing more than dull.