Store-brand horror schlock destined to be forgotten.
The Lazarus Effect
Silly horror movies are awesome. I’m gonna go on record here and say that Ronny Yu’s 2003 horror orgy Freddy vs. Jason is one of my absolute favorites. Yes…I said it! (It feels so good to come clean.) It’s hilarious, fun, and in some ways a precursor to the superhero mash-ups so fashionable in today’s multiplexes. Thoughtful horror movies are awesome, too; Splice, the 2009 film by genre great Vincenzo Natali, is an imaginative “thou shalt not play God” cautionary tale full of wonderful pseudoscience and body horror that, while delectably genre-tastic, has still got a brain about it and poses some interesting ethical quandaries.
David Gelb’s The Lazarus Effect is a medical horror thriller that tries to be dumb fun, but ends up being just plain dumb. It tries to be thoughtful, too, but again: just plain dumb. Not campy enough, not smart enough–this is a movie that paces back and forth, unable to commit to any one direction. It winds up lost in the middle of nowhere, a sort of genre-movie limbo reserved only for the most listless of wares. Legend refers to this mysterious place as “the bargain bin”.
At the center of the film’s plot are married scientists Zoe (Olivia Wilde) and Frank (Mark Duplass), who have discovered the key to waking the dead: they zap some white goop with electricity, spout some vaguely science-sounding nonsense (they might as well be chanting “ooga-booga ooga-booga”), flip some switches and…voila! They bring a dead blind dog back to life (his sight restored, no less)! They call the white goop “the Lazarus serum”, a miracle drug engineered to “bring someone back” from the great beyond. According to the giddy science duo, its purpose is to extend the window surgeons have to resuscitate immediately following a flatline. But let’s be real: this is immortality they’re messing with.
Joining Zoe and Frank in their sparsely-lit, unnecessarily shadowy lab (because horror movie) in the bowels of a fictitious California university are their two assistants, Clay (Evan Peters) and Niko (Donald Glover), and Eva (Sarah Bolger), a college student making a documentary about the team’s breakthrough for a class project (she’s really just there to be our surrogate). The team is left in a state of awe following their canine resurrection, but the dog’s strange behavior–it doesn’t eat, doesn’t want to play, looks clinically miserable–has alarmed Clay, who fears the ol’ pooch could “go Cujo” on them if they’re not careful. When Zoe and Frank bring the dog home (yes, they’re that stupid, and yes, they are also somehow scientists), dog hops on their bed and looms over Zoe as she sleeps. This shot, like the rest of the movie, is meant to evoke, uh…something (laughter, fear, suspense–I dunno), but doesn’t really stimulate anything; the dog stares blankly at Zoe, we stare blankly at the dog staring at Zoe. Crickets.
What follows is a torturously predictable series of events, all of which ape from other, better movies. When the big bad corporation that funds the school confiscates all of the team’s equipment and threatens manufacture the serum for profit, the nerd-squad sneaks into the lab late at night to replicate the experiment and document the process, beating the suits to the punch. An accident occurs during the experiment and one of them dies and…need I go on? Oh alright, alright. For the sake of journalism, I guess. One of them dies during the experiment and is hastily ushered back into the world of the living. But guess what? They don’t come back the same! Now they’re evil! Bwahahaha!
The generic jump-scares and store-brand horror imagery (floating furniture, little girl standing in long hallway, blacked-out “evil eyes”) pile up like shovels of dirt on the movie’s grave, and all the while we’re desperate for a breath of fresh air–a new idea, a kill we haven’t seen before–anything to save us from the blood ‘n’ guts coma we’re slipping into. But alas, the film never breaks loose from convention. Its most earnest attempt is when Zoe and Frank have a theological impasse early in the film about what happens to us at the moment of death. Frank thinks we hallucinate as a result of our brain flooding our body with DMT, Zoe thinks the DMT is meant to usher our soul from this plane to the next. But the debate is essentially only an explanation for the nutty things we see later in the movie rather than real food for thought.
What hurts the most is that Gelb managed to assemble such an exceptional cast. It feels misguided to have a capable funnyman like Glover play a low-key everyman, while Duplass, who plays a great low-key everyman, instead plays a frantic, senseless mad scientist. (Duplass is much better casted in last year’s The One I Love, an excellent sci-fi film you should run to right now if you haven’t seen it.) Wilde doesn’t fit her role either, her slinky charm feeling at odds with Zoe’s violent mental collapse late in the movie.
If you want to have some raucous, childish fun, go watch Freddy vs. Jason, be ready to laugh, and leave pretension at the door. If you fancy a moody chiller that’ll give your brain a little something more to chew on, Splice it up. The Lazarus Effect tries to do what those movies do so well, but gets lost along the way and mucks it all up, leaving us dead cold. The characters in this forgettable piece of horror schlock can “bring back” all the dead dogs and dead people they want; just please, please don’t bring me back. I don’t want to go back.