'The Lazarus Effect'
The ‘Paranormal Activity’ franchise can be blamed for many problems with the current state of the horror genre, but one definite win to come out of that manufactured phenomenon was the creation of Blumhouse Productions. The horror label has been responsible for a quite a few clever low-budget genre flicks (as well as a handful of inevitable stinkers). The latest Blumhouse production, ‘The Lazarus Effect’, features plenty of big talent and even a few big ideas, but it sadly just doesn’t come together as satisfyingly as the company’s best efforts like ‘Sinister’ or ‘Oculus’.
Mumblecore darling Mark Duplass and Brit bombshell Olivia Wilde star as a happily married couple who are also genius scientists working on a means to conquer death. In keeping with screenwriting contrivance for ‘Frankenstein’-style horror yarns, they also each represent one side of the ethical debate for overcoming death. He’s a staunch rational scientist who believes that it’s man’s right, while she’s a struggling Catholic with spiritual concerns about their great experiment.
Along with a pair of twentysomething assistants (Donald Glover from ‘Community’ and Evan Peters from ‘American Horror Story’) and a cutiepie documentary filmmaker presumably left over from a Found Footage draft of the script (Sarah Bolger from ‘The Tudors’), the gang remarkably pull off their miracle. They bring a dog back to life and get all excited and celebratory. However, that makes the powers funding their experiment (led by the always creepy Ray Wise) nervous enough to try to take it away. In the process of staging one last big experiment to prove their worth, Wilde is accidentally electrocuted. Although the others are able to resurrect her, she returns after a brief trip to Hell with some special powers a cruel sense of justice.
For the first hour or so, ‘The Lazarus Effect’ is actually a rather charming little B-movie. It moves along at an impressive clip (83 minutes including credits), teases out some mildly intelligent themes, and puts the dialogue into the mouths of actors who are far too talented for the material. It’s a funny, weird, amusing little exploration of Mary Shelly’s classic themes that moves too fast for the audience to question any of the stupidity at the core. Duplass, Wilde, Glover and Peters all bring a loose naturalism to their performances that helps the story feel credible, while the teasing scares surrounding the resurrected dog offer just enough subtle creep-outs to satisfy genre hounds in the audience.
Unfortunately, once documentary director David Gelb (no joke, the guy who made ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’) finally starts to unleash hell, the movie falls apart. Rather than building scares into the casually amusing style of the story, the director just shifts gears and turns ‘The Lazarus Effect’ into one of those late ’80s supernatural slasher knockoffs of ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ – and not even a good one. When Wilde returns from the dead, she’s in full-on monster mode complete with blacked-out eyes and an unclear collection of super-powers that seem to change whenever she damn well feels like it. Sometimes she bends reality into hellfire hallucinations, sometimes she goes on psychic killing sprees, and sometimes she just launches into philosophical rants for no particular reason. Regardless, her evil doings are consistently stupid and ineffective.
It’s not Wilde’s fault. The actress does her best to create a monster. She just doesn’t have much to work with. After putting a great deal of care into establishing the characters and the world of the movie with an air of quirky credibility, Gelb’s movie devolves into tiresome genre clichés that are never particularly entertaining, much less frightening. That’s a shame, because creating a decent setup in a horror movie is rare, but if the payoff doesn’t deliver, all lost.
The movie could have gone interesting places as well. The “opening the gates of Hell” trope is rich with potential for surreal, unsettling, hard-R imagery that would suit the CGI horror era well. Oddly, this is the second such movie to appear on screens in the last twelve months. The previous flick was last summer’s ‘As Above, So Below’, which featured a genuinely terrifying hellbound climax after a setup so tedious that it sucked all the fun out of the proceedings.
It’s a shame that there isn’t a way to tack the first half of ‘The Lazarus Effect’ onto the second half of ‘As Above, So Below’. That would be a genuinely solid horror flick. Instead, we’re stuck with two mediocre efforts while waiting for a more talented filmmaker to crack open Satan’s gates and give us the hellish horrors we deserve. In the meantime, ‘The Lazarus Effect’ would be a perfectly acceptable B-horror movie provided that you’re okay with the fact that the horror material is the most disappointing element. However, it’s hard to imagine any genre fan willing to accept that compromise.