The concept of returning from beyond the grave is one of the touchstones of the horror genre. From Mary Shelley‘s immortal (and constantly adapted) novel “Frankenstein” to George A. Romero‘s equally inspiring midnight movie “Night of the Living Dead,” the idea of crossing over and then coming back has been the backbone of countless scary stories. The latest tale to tackle this idea is “The Lazarus Effect,” a new cheapo horror film from “Paranormal Activity” producer Jason Blum, that follows a plucky group of graduate students who are experimenting with a new serum that is designed to bring patients who have died on the operating table back to life (in an attempt to give doctors more time to fix the problem). Of course, things go terribly, terribly wrong. What could have been a nicely technological take on the same basic material, is drably put together, light on scares, and outrageously uninventive. This is a tale of resurrection that should have stayed dead.
“The Lazarus Effect” starts with something of a misdirect, with grainy handheld footage of one of the experiments. The team is trying to bring a pig back from death; at first it seems as if the experiment has failed, but (of course), the pig springs back to life with an ear-piercing squeal. (This is the first of a number of “jump scares” that the movie is positively overflowing with.) But, thank the lord above, this is not another tired found footage movie, and after a terrific opening credits sequence, the movie gets down to business, establishing its contained setting and limited cast. There are four young researchers (played by Mark Duplass, Olivia Wilde, Donald Glover and Evan Peters) and a tank-top-wearing videographer (Sarah Bolger), set to record their scientific breakthrough. Of course, after some noodling around in the lab, establishing the fact that these youngsters are intellectually precocious but lacking in any kind of spirituality, and a halfhearted subplot about corporate espionage (embodied, of course, by a smarmy pharmaceutical representative played with oily malevolence by Ray Wise), one of the team members (dear, sweet Wilde) accidentally dies, is given the serum to come back to life, and starts stalking the other members of the team for indiscriminate reasons.
So while the movie might start with prolonged scenes of the scientists engaged in lively debate about the existential quandaries associated with the experiment, the movie largely boils down to another slasher film, with each researcher being offed in creative (but, thanks to the restrictive PG-13 rating, largely bloodless) ways. For some reason when the serum brings you back to life, it also electrifies the unused parts of your brain, so you get psychic demon powers (complete with inky black eyes). This bit is sort of like “Lucy,” except boring.
For long stretches of the movie it just plays like a hodgepodge of other, better movies, everything from “Flatliners” (which they have lifted an entire subplot from, wholesale) to “Pet Semetary,” with much of the first act devoted to a dog that they have brought back but who is now, somehow, different (cue ominous music). And this game of spot-the-homage would be fun if “The Lazarus Effect” weren’t so bone-chillingly dull. Not only does the thematic investigation into the prospect of playing God go out the window once Scary Olivia Wilde becomes the movie’s chief concern, but any kind of aesthetic value goes along with it, leaving an empty shell of a movie, ready for mass market consumption but devoid of any sort of personality or discernable identity.
What makes this even more befuddling is the fact that the film was directed by David Gelb, who previously helmed the sumptuous food porn documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” a film that was positively overflowing with style, atmosphere, and color. It was also a movie about something, with real concerns beyond its subject matter. With “The Lazarus Effect,” Gelb has abandoned all of that. This is a completely anonymous movie, drained of anything even remotely interesting or engaging. Thematically it’s a wash too, because while it would be interesting to address religion or metaphysics, instead there’s a scene where a guy gets trapped in a metal cabinet and then gets crushed to death by the scary lady’s psychic powers.
Almost everyone in the movie is horribly miscast, too, which certainly doesn’t help anything. Duplass, for all his trailblazing in the arch world of mumblecore, is nothing if not earnest, and here he really does try to bring dimension and compassion to a woefully underwritten role. He’s involved in a relationship with Wilde’s character, but his commitment to the project has put their upcoming wedding on the backburner, and when she’s killed it’s his guilt that forces him to bring her back to life. This is an interesting idea, for sure, and in the hands of more mature and thoughtful filmmakers, could have been explored eloquently. But that’s just not in the cards. Instead, Duplass is stalked for the rest of the movie, through the dingy, dimly lit corridors of the basement research facility, while Glover and Peters (also completely out of their element) look on blankly. These are actors with an abundance of charisma and personality but in “The Lazarus Effect” they’re little more than talky props.
If “The Lazarus Effect” is a sizable enough hit, the Blumhouse team will undoubtedly begin work on a follow-up. Maybe in subsequent films, complex philosophical notions about the afterlife and what it all means will be given more than a cursory glance, and a filmmaker will be given the time, money, and freedom to make a stylistically adventurous (and hopefully R-rated) film that doesn’t simply rely on dark contact lenses and off-camera screams to scare the audience. Bringing someone back from the dead is one of the horror genre’s oldest and most effective tropes, but with “The Lazarus Effect,” it just seems tired. [D-]