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The Lazarus Effect | Review

Death Becomes Her: Gelb’s B-Grade Horror Haunted By Its Own Ideas

The Lazarus Effect PosterWith its absurd title, which recalls an era of enjoyable B-grade Sci-Fi/horror films from decades past, The Lazarus Effect seems disappointingly inclined to revel in a shallow pool of absurd, preternatural devices. Though its third act regression into silliness may seem wholly unsurprising to a majority of its core audience, the pedigree of talent both in front of and behind the camera would seem to dictate otherwise. At its outset, there’s a decent degree of mounting dread, even as we expect the consequences of these medical students’ silly actions to quickly reign a terrible wrath upon their ambitious, presumptuous brains. The title, referencing a notable character from the Bible who literally comes back from the dead, is an obvious giveaway to those familiar with the allusion, but it very meekly pits its warring scientific and religious ideologies timidly against each other (with an engagement ring and a cross for repetitive reference). In truth, if the film had more potently defined these opposing schools of thought (and yes, for the sake of argument that’s inviting the notion that the religious realm has something tangible to offer) perhaps it could have recouped a bit of the uninspiring finale, which, supernatural or not, positions the notion of hell as uniquely defined for every individual frame of mind.

A group of medical researchers at Berkeley, led by Frank (Mark Duplass) and his fiancée Zoe (Olivia Wilde), is engaging in a groundbreaking experiment that would allow medical physicians to stave off death long enough to save lives. Their team consists of Niko (Donald Glover), Clay (Evan Peters), and documentary filmmaker, Eva (Sarah Bolger).

Frank and Zoe’s team has been experimenting on animal carcasses with a serum that is, momentarily, supposed to bring the creatures back to life. After three years of trials, their hard work is about to pay off, and they bring a dog back from the dead. Frank and Zoe take the dog home overnight, but find the animal’s behavior to be erratic while the serum doesn’t dissipate as it ought to. Before they can further develop their research, the experiment is suddenly shut down by the school and Frank outlines a conspiracy theory wherein a medical research company most likely has bought them out and sabotaged the medical team with the university through accusations of violating the terms of their grant. Before they’re denied access forever to the facility, the team agrees to sneak into the lab to repeat the experiment and obtain evidence that would prove their research. But in the middle of the hurry and flurry, Zoe is electrocuted, leading Frank to use their serum to bring her back to life.

In many ways, though it recalls a host of well-versed medically related thrillers, its apparent disinterest in challenging notions of quality in B-genre offerings invites comparison to a variety of cloning films, and you can grab any number of these from cinematic orbit, like the 2004 Robert De Niro/Rebecca Romijn blight, Godsend (2004). In that film, a little dead boy is cloned, at the behest of his doting parents, and though the being that comes back may be genetically identical he’s certainly not the same, loving boy. Instead, he’s replaced with something insidious, and man suffers the consequences for daring to play God. Here, it’s virtually the same concept, in the space of several minutes the consciousness of Zoe is invited back into her physical being, and now, much like Luc Besson’s Lucy, she has access to those less primordial parts of the brain, with enhanced capabilities of (vaguely defined) psychic capabilities.

The sometimes distracting Wilde is actually well-cast here, utilizing the sometimes alarming capabilities of her striking visage to create the promise of unnerving events to come. Only, she’s consistently hobbled by the disappointing screenplay. There’s actually something quite moving about her character’s realization that even though she’s lived her life as a good person, she still ends up stuck in a shameful memory from her childhood. Had screenwriters Luke Dawson (the English version of Shutter, 2008) and Jeremy Slater (the upcoming Fantastic Four re-whatever) bothered, they could have chosen to examine the notion of hell as a purely psychological state, yet they seem more at home with limp approximations of a religious angle simply to usher in Zoe’s superpowers, which takes the film into standard demonic possession type territory, giving her a black eyed Stepford Wives retrofit—not to mention comparisons to Frankenstein and his Bride sequel.

What’s amazing to realize is that this is director David Gelb’s narrative debut, a documentarian known for his 2011 film Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Indie stalwart Mark Duplass is dependably warm as Wilde’s scientific minded husband, and a variety of oddball supporting characters like Donald Glover, Evan Peters and a Ray Wise cameo may distract, but are interesting elements. More effective is a winningly sympathetic Sarah Bolger as Eva, the documentarian filming this medical teams’ research. In that strangely wonderful and altogether magical way of gifted performers, Bolger takes a completely innocuous role and crafts an empathetic screen presence.

At a very slim running time of only eighty three minutes, much more could have been done with this sometimes intelligent idea. Why did the entire second half of the film have to transpire over one evening? Why couldn’t the film remain in the psychological realm and unwind over a longer period of time, perhaps allowing the un-dead Zoe to become an emotionally compelling and terrifying entity? Ultimately, The Lazarus Effect doesn’t leave much to appreciate by the time it finishes up, even by way of enjoyably pulpy standards. To be fair, there are enough elements, including its production value, that make this better than any number of random genre efforts, especially considering the season. But that’s not enough.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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