'Lazarus Effect' Shows Life At First, Soon Loses It In Daft Horror

Directed by: David Gelb; Runtime: 83 minutes
Grade: C

As scientific research furthers our understanding of the secrets behind the way things work, so too does it provide fodder for science-fiction to explore current impossibilities in more credible -- or, at least, more informed -- ways. That even trickles down to schlocky indie flicks like The Lazarus Effect, an update on the theme of botched human resurrection popularized by the likes of Mary Shelley and H.P. Lovecraft. In the case of this biological horror-thriller from David Gelb, the director of the wonderful documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi of all things, updated scientific gibberish leads into fairly interesting moral grounds as a group of med students "play God" by experimenting with reanimation of mammal bodies, creating an eerily morbid setting as the possibility of applying that research to humans creeps up. Alas, despite a promising start, the film ultimately uses the setting for feeble jolts and the outlandish exacerbation of scientific hokum, devolving into something that's as unscary as it is inane.

In the depths of a medical university, a group of students have been working on a series of funded experiments, appropriately titled Lazarus Project, that have taken them close to solving life's greatest dilemma: bringing something back from the dead. Led by engaged doctors Frank (Mark Duplass) and Zoe (Olivia Wilde) who have set their lives aside until completion, the demanding project has progressed to a degree that they feel comfortable inviting a photojournalist, Eva (Sarah Bolger), to the lab in order to document their next steps. Eventually, they reach success in their experiments, but it comes at a price: the reanimated subjects come back with a hostile temperament. Before they're given a chance to pursue these new developments, the dean of students at their school demands them to shut down the research, forcing them into a rushed situation where they need to duplicate their findings. In the scramble, an accident claims the life of one of the researchers, Zoe, putting the others in the desperate position of testing their work on a human subject to reverse the damage ... and see what state she's in afterwards.

While some might be quick to pick apart the science involved in this resurrection process laid out by writers Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater, the grounded mad-scientist concept in The Lazarus Effect generates a pulse of interest early on. Crafty scientific technobabble finds a way of transforming something similar to Herbert West's glowing green serum into a method that's ... uh, mildly conceivable, while the researchers discuss the breakthrough on philosophical terms befitting more sci-fi tendencies. There's nothing really new in their chats about science vs. religion and the morality behind bringing organisms back from the dead, save an interesting theory about DMT and its association with moving to the afterlife, but it establishes capable B-movie surroundings for an eerie climate. In fact, it would've been preferable to just see these sensibilities extend from start to finish, focused on lower-key, morbid scenarios and conflicts that would've sparked overzealous hubris in some and conservative resistance in others.

Unfortunately, David Gelb and his writers seem to think that The Lazarus Effect required a blatant catalyst to keep things moving along. A contrived mixture of school intervention and corporate maneuverings promptly weakens the film's foundation, relying on a capable cast to elevate the sloppy move through frantic developments. Mark Duplass and Olivia Wilde both commit to the scenario and display fine chemistry as the almost-married doctors with conflicting moral barometers -- especially Wilde's handling of the tormenting skeleton in her character's closet -- while Evan Peters and Donald Glover temper their idiosyncratic personalities into credible brainiacs with endearing personalities. Working against the holes that mount up around their availability to continue practicing their research, they all do a reasonable job of acting like intelligent individuals who are coerced into abandoning their intelligence for the sake of a morbid emotional cause. There's only so much that can be done with a comparatively mild situation that must produce a dead body, though, to which all involved are obligated to relinquish their ethical concerns.

Up to this point, most of everything about The Lazarus Effect could've been tolerated had they justified those problem areas with an intriguing climax to their research, but that potential quickly dies once the extent of Gelb and Co.'s real objectives are revealed. Rote jump-scares, nonsensical dream sequences, and profoundly screwy logic transform the film into a zany twist on Luc Besson's Lucy with the "subject" changing into a puzzlingly spiteful antagonist with both psychic and telekinetic powers, armed with just enough unlocked capability to be menacing but not enough to breach the PG-13 limitations on this horror film. As a result, the fury unleashed by Zoe and what she "brings back" from the grave reduces the clever setting from a cautionary tale about science gone wrong to yet another disposable victim countdown in an isolated environment, one where the scares it attempts to deliver never get more effective than a scene earlier on featuring a pig mask and someone yelling "Boo!". Things were far more intriguing when The Lazarus Effect manipulated scientific principles and dabbled in the messiah complex.

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