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The Lazarus Effect

February 27, 2015
The Lazarus Effect

When you watch a lot of different movies, you start to notice odd little quirks. One of them is the weird overlap between the new wave of slasher horror like You’re Next and mumblecore-inspired indie fare like Drinking Buddies. The notable figures in each group of filmmakers collaborate heavily, and there’s far more cross-pollination than you might expect. And so I wasn’t entirely surprised to see indie darlings like Olivia Wilde, Mark Duplass, and Donald Glover show up in the latest horror entry from the high-gloss wing of Blumhouse Productions.

The Lazarus Effect doesn’t have quite as lush a backstory as the Insidious series, and it’s not a mindbender like Oculus. In fact, next to them it’s downright pulpy. But there’s an elegant simplicity to this story: it knows what it wants to be, and doesn’t overreach that point.

Wilde and Duplass play Zoe and Frank, the two leads of a biomedical lab investigating the possibility of using Zoe’s fundamental research to prevent decay in the brains of comatose patients. At least that’s what they put on their grant application. In fact, they think that a combination of Zoe’s serum and electrical pulses can actually revive the recently deceased. After some promising results bringing a dog back to life, a lab accident leads to Zoe’s death. Frank insists they use their experiment to bring her back, with terrible consequences.

That’s all the story you really need to hang some nice scares on. There are some creepy moments building the atmosphere before Zoe’s resurrection, but it really gets going as she grows into the power the serum has given her, in a different take on the “10% of our brains” myth featured in last year’s Lucy. Wilde carries the second half of the film, effortlessly shifting between panicked distress and diabolical confidence.

It also helps that the director, documentarian David Gelb (Jiro Dreams of Sushi), keeps the running time down to a brisk eighty-three minutes. He hasn’t trimmed quite all the fat — a few early exchanges with lab assistants Niko (Glover) and Clay (Evan Peters) seem to set up relationships that never pay off — but he keeps the story humming along smoothly until he can throw us into Zoe’s terrifying funhouse.

On the other hand, the pace can feel a bit rushed, which doesn’t leave much time to develop a proper atmosphere. Some choices feel a bit on-the-nose, like the cruciform lab hallway. Zoe’s soundtrack for working late is the Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute; the actual title translates as “Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart”. On the other hand, how many people in the audience will remember that?

It isn’t all lazy jump-scares, but The Lazarus Effect is never remotely as creepy as the best of Blumhouse’s movies, especially for a jaded horror fan. Still, there are some nice thrills, and it’s fun to watch Wilde sell the hell out of her transformation. It’s a neat little horror story that doesn’t overstay its welcome, and I, for one, would rather leave wanting more than have a movie drag on as I grow utterly bored.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics

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