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“THE LAZARUS EFFECT” (Movie Review)

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It’s an unfortunate, too familiar but once again appropriate refrain: At 77 minutes plus credits, THE LAZARUS EFFECT is yet another movie that feels like too much got left on the cutting room floor.

With a 2013 copyright date and an end-credits section devoted to “Additional Photography,” there was clearly some tinkering and experimentation involved on the way to the film’s release, though not as much as occurs onscreen. Down in the bowels of a California university building, where the gear is hi-tech but cell-phone reception is nil, a quartet of researchers have been conducting tests ostensibly aimed at improving health-care possibilities but actually focused on reanimating dead lifeforms. Heading up the project are Frank (Mark Duplass) and his girlfriend Zoe (Olivia Wilde), to whom he can’t commit quite as much as he does to their scientific trials.

Our way into the story is through Eva (Sarah Bolger), a new intern hired to document their work on video, allowing some (but not too much, thank goodness) of the ensuing action to be presented as through-the-lens footage. Ava’s arrival inspires lustful thoughts in stoner Clay (Evan Peters), while Niko (Donald Glover) quietly pines for Zoe. That’s a lot of relationship-baggage groundwork laid out in Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater’s script, which sets up a theological debate as well between pragmatic Frank and the more religious-minded Zoe, who is plagued by nightmares about some horrifically traumatic event in her past.

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All this makes for an intriguing setup, promising dramatic dividends once the team’s work crosses the point of no return. Specifically, their tests (which evoke both RE-ANIMATOR and FRANKENSTEIN by involving the combination of a serum and electrical apparatus) bear fruit when they successfully return a deceased dog to life, not only new but improved. Frank is ecstatic, but Zoe is a little more dubious about the spiritual implications of what they’re doing. The writers and director David Gelb, making a smooth transition to narrative filmmaking from documentaries like JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI, are clearly pursuing some big ideas here—which makes it all the more disappointing when, in the second half, THE LAZARUS EFFECT loses track of its ambitions and becomes one more thriller about a group of people trapped in a confined space with a bogeyman.

Or bogeywoman, as it happens. In a development that all the ads are enthusiastically giving away, Zoe becomes the next subject of their resurrection process, and she wakes up with seriously advanced and dangerous psychic abilities. Exactly how passing beyond and back has given her the power to project her nightmares into others’ psyches and create telekinetic mayhem isn’t explained, and there are a number of other loose ends, including a subplot about Big Pharma’s involvement in the team’s work that allows for the introduction of a welcome genre face who gets up-front billing but then only one scene, and posits a mystery the movie never gets around to solving. The punchlines of a couple of death scenes feel muted as well, including one that fans of late-‘80s horror may well view as a homage to HELLO MARY LOU: PROM NIGHT II.

The real shame of THE LAZARUS EFFECT’s truncated feel is that there’s enough good about what’s left to suggest that a longer version might really have been something. Continuing to advance from the introspective navel-gazing associated with his early mumblecore roles, Duplass does just fine as a much more driven character, and he has good chemistry with Wilde, who ably transitions from spiritual conflict to implacable menace. The supporting trio, however, aren’t given enough to do, with Peters neglected the opportunity to steal scenes as he did in his last wisenheimer role, X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST’s Quicksilver.

The film has a polished look and sound, plus strong makeup FX by Justin Raleigh and the Fractured FX team, and there are individual moments where THE LAZARUS EFFECT delivers the creeps and jumps as intended. Yet as the narrative proceeds, casting aside its more profound possibilities in favor of more obvious developments (including the true source of Zoe’s mental anguish), it becomes clear that there was, or should have been, more to this story than meets the eye. The movie would have benefitted if, like the characters, those responsible had allowed it to breathe.

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About the author
Michael Gingold

Michael Gingold has been a member of the FANGORIA team for the past three decades. After starting as a writer for the magazine in 1988, he came aboard as associate editor in 1990 and two years later moved up to managing editor. He now serves as editor-in-chief of the magazine while continuing to contribute numerous articles and reviews, as well as a contributing editor/writer for this website.

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