February is the cruelest month for solid PG-13 horror movies bent on luring the kiddies for popcorn and calculated jump scares. While the unapologetically stupid B-thriller “The Lazarus Effect” offers little in the way of a salve or antidote — or, in spirit of the film’s mumbo-jumbo sci-fi parlance, “serum” — to this formula, not once during this absorbingly hokey ride will you be thinking about anything else. It’s a compelling, even decently acted piece of schlock that breezes by at a lean 83 minutes, with enough self-awareness to know you’re going to forget it the minute the lights go up.
“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” director David Gelb takes a hairpin career turn to ambivalently concoct a witchy brew of ridiculousness. Olivia Wilde and Mark Duplass star as engaged-to-be-married scientists steering a Berkeley research team toward a hush-hush medical breakthrough — bringing the dead back to life by way of a seminal-looking fluid called the Lazarus Serum.
The film opens with the team — including young indie stalwarts Donald Glover, Evan Peters and Sarah Bolger — performing an unsanctioned trial on a dead dog. Some of the sample dialogue: “Increase the omega!” “Stitch the neural pathways!” “Get the serum!” Such bits of biological babble get thrown around with rapid-fire abandon like an episode of a medical drama on amphetamines. But don’t bother trying to wrap your head around all this semantic hairsplitting. Not even the actors, earnestly hardworking as they are, know what they’re saying.
The dog is successfully resurrected, but immediately something’s off. He displays unpredictably aggressive behavior, looking dead-eyed, almost possessed. Frank (Duplass) and Zoe (Wilde) bring the dog back home, where we learn that she suffers a recurring visceral nightmare involving an apartment fire she may or may not have caused in her childhood. She also harbors heaps of Catholic guilt, clutching her rosary even as tightly as her pragmatic scientific beliefs.
But soon after, a corporate takeover, led by a nasty bigwig played by Ray Wise (aka Leland Palmer of “Twin Peaks”), results in all their life’s work swept out from under them. Zoe and Frank quickly launch a rogue attempt to recreate the experiment, but naturally everything goes awry and Zoe ends up getting electrocuted to death in the process. Fueled by grief and evidently stupidity, Frank coerces the group into resurrecting her.
The newly back-from-the-dead Zoe finds herself armed with an arsenal of superhuman abilities like telepathy and telekinesis, all while traversing a waking dream state caused by the lingering effects of DMT, the highly psychotropic chemical the human brain induces at the moment of death. And let’s just say that the now-erratic, rage-filled Zoe is not happy to be back on mortal ground.
The premise echoes Stephen King’s terrifying early novel “Pet Sematary,” about an Indian burial ground that possesses creepy regenerative powers, by way of a pedestrian David Cronenberg. Elements of body horror get thrown into the mix as “Lazarus Effect” devolves into a mostly fun haunted house movie, as these five scientific crack-ups get locked on the premises overnight and everything goes malevolently kooky.
Given the presence of “Whiplash” production team Blumhouse — which has become a factory of genre filmmaking from “Paranormal Activity” to “Insidious” and SXSW found footage hit “Creep” — as well as the indie pedigree of the cast, you’d think the film would offer some modicum of smarts. One might hope for the sci-fi intelligence of Vincenzo Natali’s underrated 2009 thriller “Splice,” a canny examination of the perils of wrongheaded science and what it actually means to play god. No such luck.
“Lazarus Effect” offers a handful of arresting, “Shining”-esque visuals involving children lurking in dark corridors and burning dolls, but this is a horror movie defined by jump scares rather than a lingering sense of dread. Though hardly scary, and quick to evaporate from the mind upon its final, open-ended smash cut to black, there’s enough entertainment here to warrant a blandly diverting Friday night at the movies.
“The Lazarus Effect” opens nationwide on Friday.