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You’d think that the young scientists in the new horror film The Lazarus Effect would know better than to attempt to raise the dead. After all, Hollywood has demonstrated time and time again — in countless films including Frankenstein, Pet Sematary and Flatliners — that the results usually don’t turn out very well.
And so it goes again in this latest effort from the prolific Blumhouse Productions, which will clearly be profitable, especially considering its obviously miniscule budget.
In one of the more interesting career segues in recent times, it’s directed by David Gelb, whose sole previous credit is the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. He makes the transition to horror with reasonable effectiveness, although it’s hard for viewers aware of his previous work to not chuckle when some of the characters enjoy a sushi meal early in the proceedings.
Set almost entirely within the confines of a laboratory in Berkeley, California, it concerns the efforts of a ragtag group of researchers led by the driven Frankenstein, uh, Frank (Mark Duplass) and his more philosophically minded fiancee, Zoe (Olivia Wilde). The team also includes Nike (Donald Glover), who has a not-so-secret crush on Zoe; Clay (Evan Peters), who partakes of a toke now and again while working; and videographer Eva (Sarah Bolger), who’s documenting the experiments.
The group’s study began as an effort to prolong the time window in which a recently deceased person can be revived, but unbeknownst to the university sponsoring them, they’ve expanded its parameters considerably. And their work seems to be paying off, as they succeed in reviving a dead dog with the use of a gloppy white serum and a well-timed jolt of electricity.
Unfortunately, the canine soon begins acting weird, exhibiting aggressive behavior, refusing to eat and climbing on Zoe’s bed to stare ominously at her while she sleeps.
“This thing could go Cujo on you in a hurry!” warns Clay, obviously a Stephen King fan.
Zoe has more thoughtful concerns. “What if we ripped him out of doggie heaven?” she worriedly asks Frank.
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When the university gets wind of their activities, they promptly shut the project down, with a pharmaceutical company swooping in to seize all of their results. Its representative is played by Ray Wise (Twin Peaks), whose agent apparently has the ability to snare him a role, however brief, in every horror film made.
Fortunately, or not, they’ve managed to hold onto at least one batch of the serum, so they decide to go rogue and replicate the experiment under cover of night. But a freak accident results in Zoe getting electrocuted, so she becomes the subject instead.
The screenplay by Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater begins promisingly enough with its slow-burn examination of the various moral issues involved. But once Zoe is resuscitated, the proceedings descend into familiar horror-film tropes, with Zoe, who’s haunted by horrific memories of a traumatic childhood incident, suddenly exhibiting the ability to read thoughts and move objects with her mind. Death clearly doesn’t become her, as she’s transformed into a vengeful, Carrie-like figure who begins laying waste to her colleagues in extremely violent, albeit PG-13 rated, fashion.
Becoming progressively less interesting as the body count rises and Zoe’s eyes turn hellishly black, the film squanders whatever potential it had, not to mention the talents of such performers as Duplass and Wilde, who clearly deserve better.
Director Gelb displays a reasonably sure hand in his debut narrative effort, although he relies far too heavily on predictable jump scares and a recurring motif in which the screen goes black for a few seconds before revealing the next scary visual.
“This is too much weird shit,” declares one of the characters, as if anticipating the eventual bad reviews.
Running a swift 83 minutes, The Lazarus Effect would have been perfect as the bottom half of a low-rent, 42nd Street double bill back in the days when such things existed.
Production: Blumhouse Productions, Mosaic Media Group
Cast: Mark Duplass, Olivia Wilde, Donald Glover, Evan Peters, Sarah Bolger
Director: David Gelb
Screenwriters: Luke Dawson, Jeremy Slater
Producers: Jason Blum, Jimmy Miller, Cody Zweig
Executive producers: Matt Kaplan, Jeanette Volturno-Brill, Luke Dawson, Gloria Fan
Director of photography: Michael Fimognari
Production designer: Melanie Paizis-Jones
Editor: Michael N. Knue
Costume designer: Pamela Lee Incardona
Composer: Sarah Schachner
Casting: Mary Vernieu, Venus Kanani
Rated PG-13, 83 min.
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