Directed by David Gelb, his first feature length film that is not a documentary, from a screenplay written by Luke Dawson (Shutter, New York Studies) and Jeremy Slater (Fantastic Four, Pet) The Lazarus Effect stars Olivia Wilde, as a character who goes to hell but does not stay there. Before anyone starts pointing fingers and screaming about spoilers, calm down. This short descriptive does not spell out the entire movie.
It also features Evan Peters (AHS, Adult World), Sarah Bolger (The Spiderwick Chronicles, The Tudors), Mark Duplass , Donald Glover and horror icon Ray Wise has a tiny cameo. The film follows a group of researchers who are working on a serum and a procedure that could make it possible to resuscitate dead people who have been gone “too long.” Their process would allow the dead to be brought back to life with no cell damage.
The film starts with the team bringing a pig back to life and then a dog. While the first does not last long, just long enough to scare the audience and the researchers, the second lasts for almost the rest of the film. Like Pet Sematary however, the things that are brought back have something wrong with them. The success of the team at resuscitating animals that have been dead too long for normal recovery, leads in their research being shut down.
*Sidenote* In keeping with the Stephen King flavor of the plot, at one point Clay asks his fellow team members if they really want to keep the resuscitated dog in their house. “This thing could go Cujo here in a hurry.”
A pharmaceutical company buys out the corporation who funded their research and all the teams findings are confiscated. They decide to run another test, they have one last dead dog to resuscitate and when Zoe (Wilde) flips the switch on the electrical input she is electrocuted and dies. A desperate Frank tries everything to bring his fiancee back and finally resorts to using the serum they used for the pig and dog.
The rest of the team reluctantly agree to bring Zoe back and it looks like they have failed. After they give up and leave the room, Zoe sits up still covered by the sheet that Frank draped over her dead body. She is alive and in shock.
The film may follow Pet Sematary enough that the things, including people, that come back are changed, but the plot goes no further in that direction. It does, however, borrow from American Horror Story: Coven. (Rather interesting since Evan Peters is a regular on AHS) There is a scene on Coven where, as part of a test, the witches have to enter Hell and get back out. While in the netherworld, their time feels like days, months, years, in essence an eternity. When Zoe dies she lands in Hell and when she returns Zoe tell Frank that her time there lasted “years.”
After Zoe gets back, it seems that she can send others to Hell as well, although at least one time is involuntary. As the rest of the team fight for their lives, Zoe continues to change.
The Lazarus Effect is entertaining horror in the guise of science and the old “there are some things that man was never meant to know” theme works well. The film does not scare so much as disturb and it is satisfyingly creepy. There is one effective “jump” scare, and that is a prank, but it does insure that bums will leave seats.
The film does a good job of mixing humor with its thriller aspect (the movie really is more a thriller dressed as horror) at one point, Evan Peters’ character Clay is talking to the documentary filmmaker Ava (Bolger). Ava was sucked into Zoe’s Hell, where an apartment building fire she saw as a child burns around her. The camera operator escapes but she is burned in the process and pretty shaken up.
Clay: (Checking the bandage on Ava’s arm) “All right, rest 24 hours, take an Advil and call me. You good?”
Ava: “It was like I was there. How is that even possible?”
Clay: “I’m telling you it’s the serum. It’s like unlocking the part of the human brain that lets you do crazy psychic sh*t.”
Ava: (Disbelievingly) “That’s your big theory? ‘Crazy psychic shit?’
They then go on to talk about evolution, but the phrasing of the character provides a smile and a pause before heading into creepy territory again. Clay has a couple of “amusing” moments and one can only wonder how many wound up on the cutting room floor.
Ray Wise, who has more horror film credits to his name than Carter has little pills, gets all of about 93 seconds on screen and three lines. Despite the “blink and you’ll miss him” size of his cameo, kudos go to the filmmakers for including the legend that is Ray Wise.
The film goes through the motions of trying to find a solution to the problem of Zoe coming back very different from how she “checked out.” While the movie is not scary, per se, it has its moments of making the viewer a bit uneasy and, for lack of a better word, wince-y.
In terms of performance, Evan Peters does his usual brilliant job of convincing the audience that he is that character on the screen. Olivia Wilde does an adequate job as the “possessed” woman brought back from Hell. The actress can looks seriously scary and unnerving and she plays this part totally straight. Bolger, a very talented Irish actress, works extremely well as the university student documentary maker.
Duplass and Glover both deliver in terms of believability. Sadly, despite the questions raised of whether man should presume to “play God” or mess with issues that affect the human soul, the film as horror does not quite work. As a thriller it delivers very well. For the film to really frighten, there should have been a bit more hugger-mugger, or hokum if you prefer, to make the viewer watch through fingers, head turned and ready to jump out of their seat.
Despite the deaths in the film, there are not many moments where the viewers popcorn is in danger of becoming airborne.
The Lazarus Effect is a good enough film to rate 3.5 out of 5 stars. It is available on iTunes at the moment to rent or buy. Pop a bowl of popcorn and sit back to watch David Gelb put his actors through their not-so-scary paces. Adequate but certainly not terrifying.