If a character wishes to survive the dark, stormy, often blood-splattered world of horror cinema, it is imperative that he or she follow a strict set of guidelines. First: When stalked by someone with murderous intentions, splitting up is always a bad idea. Second: Having sex practically ensures an untimely demise. And, most notably, third: Attempting to raise something from the dead always leads to disaster. Of course, horror film characters will not abide by these rules as they inevitably prove themselves to be irrational, impetuous, and unforgivably dumb; those in David Gelb’s supernatural-themed misfire “The Lazarus Effect” are no different. Unfortunately, when a “scary” movie manages to lack both relatable protagonists and any semblance of terror, it elevates itself to a profound level of awfulness. Despite boasting an A-list cast and the kernel of an engaging premise, “The Lazarus Effect” succumbs to its hapless direction, stilted dialogue, and mind-numbing predictability.
From the film’s shaky-camera opening, its prognosis is grim: Keen on laughing in God’s face, a gang of Berkeley researchers decide to experiment with reanimating dead animals using a lab-made elixir known as the Lazarus Serum. The group, led by soon-to-be-married Frank (Mark Duplass) and Zoe (Olivia Wilde), manages to revive a dog (and, logically, keep him as a pet) before the university shuts down all further procedures. After Zoe bites the dust in an ill-fated attempt to continue her research, Frank, who has obviously never read any Mary Shelley or seen any horror movie ever, decides to resurrect his lost love. Bad move, Frank: Zoe returns, albeit as an omnipotent, possibly demonic telepath, hellbent on killing her colleagues for no apparent reason. Everything is ridiculous, and nothing is as it should be.
Presumably, this is when David Gelb intended for “The Lazarus Effect” to become scary. But Gelb, director of the poignant, visually sumptuous documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” (2011), packs his first foray into scripted film with choices that drain suspense out of inherently frightening material. Particularly in the lumbering first half, Gelb strings together a series of half-hearted stabs at developing character relationships and advancing the tenuous storyline. However, nearly every scene seems to end prematurely. The film jumps from one to the next with little to no resolution or explanation. Even worse, the camera lingers for what feels like an eternity on every impending jump-scare, rendering each more dull than the next. This utter lack of surprises, coupled with the myriad ungraceful uses of tired horror tropes—creaky doors, flashing lights, ominous hallways—leaves the viewer to wallow in boredom for much of the film.
Additionally, screenwriters Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater have crafted a Frankenstein’s monster of scripts by stitching together the leftover ideas from other supernatural horror and sci-fi flicks. As a result, the plot and dialogue reek of confusion and cliché. The writers introduce a plethora of side-stories and concepts—a mysterious company intent on stealing lab work, the intrinsic connection between science and religion, a possible love triangle—that are dropped mere minutes after introduction. The dialogue just worsens the situation. One of the more tragic displays of cinematic writing comes halfway through the film: After reuniting with his wife, Frank whispers, “I thought I’d lost you.” “You did,” Zoe responds. “But… I didn’t,” says Frank, thus concluding the most emotionally charged exchange of the film. That Duplass and Wilde can continually deliver line after line of such stilted conversation without laughing or vomiting is truly a testament to their abilities as actors.
“The Lazarus Effect” is essentially an 80-minute stream of missed opportunities and half-baked subplots. The whole production rings so egregiously trite and predictable that Relativity Media could have marketed it as a dark comedy, except the film also happens to be devoid of laughs or joy. Ironically, although “The Lazarus Effect” finished filming over a year ago, it feels rushed: At times, with its unwavering reliance on hackneyed visuals and muddled plot points, it resembles the product of a high school film class. But the most baffling aspect of the movie is not its absence of scares or wan examination of morality; rather, it is how such a talented group of actors agreed to saddle themselves with this material. In some ways, “The Lazarus Effect” is markedly similar to Frank and Zoe’s pet zombie-dog, aside from a key difference—at no point does the film spring back to life. Indeed, it was never alive to begin with.
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