Film Review – The Lazarus Effect
The Lazarus Effect
Somewhere in the tangles of The Lazarus Effect (2015) lies a good movie. It has a few things going for it. It taps into that frightening and very real question that we’ve all thought about: what happens when we die. Whether our souls go on to some form of an afterlife or we sort of linger in nothingness for eternity, the fact that humanity simply doesn’t know what occurs when we cross that boarder is spine tingling. Sadly, the strength of that idea is wasted in a film that doesn’t take full advantage of it. Instead of capitalizing on our fears of death, it downshifts toward mundane scare tactics. The further it goes along, the more we realize both the construction and execution of the story is your basic run the of the mill horror fare.
But it had so much potential. While watching it I found myself hoping – even rooting – for it to go just a little bit further. The envelope was there to be pushed, to truly go over the top bonkers. Yet it was as though the screenplay (by Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater) was afraid to take those chances, instead relying on recycled tropes and jump scares that we’ve seen a million times before. A shame given that the director is David Gelb, the same person who made the fantastic Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011). In that, we saw a fully formed portrait of a man obsessed with one purpose. None of that insight or sense of examination translated with this recent outing.
Even more disappointing is that the material doesn’t make use of its great cast. Mark Duplass, Olivia Wilde, Donald Glover, Sarah Bolger, and Evan Peters all have an opportunity to showcase their stuff, but they’re pushing against a plot determined to hold them down. Duplass and Wilde star as Frank and Zoe, lovers who are also scientific researchers. They lead a team made up of Niko (Glover) and Clay (Peters), with Eva (Bolger) acting as the videographer capturing their every discovery. Their latest project involves a “Lazarus serum” that could potentially extend the window to resuscitate beings back to life. An experiment on a dog appears to have worked, until it starts acting…strange. Along with the realization that their experiment was unsanctioned by the governing university, their breakthrough runs the risk of never seeing the light of day.
Until the serum is used on a human subject. It’s at this point where the narrative should have ramped up into overdrive but never does. Duplass – who has carved a place for himself in the indie/mumblecore field – plays the Dr. Frankenstein role, taking matters into his own hands even when all rationality says not to. I’m a fan of Duplass; he has a very likeable on screen presence. But it’s that persona that hinders him as Frank attempts to play God when things go bad (Frank = Frankenstein, get it?). Duplass does his best with what’s assigned to him, but Frank doesn’t come off crazy enough to do the things he does. In turn, the supporting characters aren’t believable in their acceptance of his actions. These are all supposedly brilliant people, who end doing some really stupid things.
At it’s worst the film is simply not scary. There are a few instances where Gelb creates some tension. The first shot (a recording of an experiment in process) has a good level of creepiness because it takes a moment for us to even recognize what is being shown. The opening credits succeed at turning stomachs. Seriously, be sure not to make the mistake of eating something during this sequence like I did. And of all the performances, the dog was the most convincing. Whether it’s bearing its teeth in a snarl or holding still like a statue, the dog brought a supernatural quality that reminded me of the huskies in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).
Those elements aside, Gelb relies on overused tricks in an effort to cause a scare. The second half takes place entirely within a laboratory, mostly made up of a few isolated rooms and one hallway. Incorporating an annoying strobe effect, the majority of the scares have the lights going on and off when needed, allowing things to conveniently pop up behind our characters. Whether it’s budget issues or a deliberate choice by the filmmakers, isolating everyone into such a small space hinders the environment’s functionality. Characters run back and forth down the same hallway, and with so many windows one could look over and see their colleague on the other side of the facility. It’s kind of hard to be caught off guard here, unless you’re a dumb character in a bad horror movie.
With the pedigree of talent assembled, The Lazarus Effect should have been a better movie. But the reluctance to take chances shows badly. For a horror movie, it feels way too safe. As a result, I see this having a long life in the bargain bin of your local grocery store.