In general, entries in the horror genre don’t have to be novel, unique, or original, but they do have to deliver on the basic, fundamental requirements of the genre: to scare the audience consistently and thoroughly (i.e., not just through semi-competently staged, occasional jump scares). Making the chasm-wide leap from the documentary format to narrative filmmaking, director David Gelb (Jiro Dreams of Sushi) unequivocally, unreservedly fails with The Lazarus Effect, a sub-par effort by any definition. He’s not helped by Luke Dawson (Shutter) and Jeremy Slater’s (The Fantastic Four ) woefully underwritten, cliché-ridden screenplay or by a miniscule budget courtesy of Blumhouse Productions, the studio behind the far superior Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and The Purge series (among others). Where more experienced, more imaginative directors managed to leverage budget limitations into standout entries in the horror genre, Gelb does the exact opposite, crafting easily one of the worst entries in the Blumhouse Productions catalogue.
Yet another in a seemingly endless riff on Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s monster (i.e., a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of scientists playing God), The Lazarus Effect centers on two research scientists, Frank (Mark Duplass) and Zoe (Olivia Wilde). They’re not just professional partners, but romantic partners as well, though a long-term engagement hasn’t led to a formalized, legal marriage, the result of Frank’s all-encompassing obsession with extending life by resurrecting the recently dead. His grant, however, only covers research into the neural degradation of comatose patients (and the reversal thereof), essentially meaning that Frank and Zoe’s work may not just be unethical or illegal, but might be violating the contract with a major pharmaceutical company funding the project. That violation plays a key role in the inevitable plot turn that leaves Zoe dead and a desperate Frank to use the combination of experimental drugs and electric shocks to bring her back from the dead.
Not surprisingly given genre expectations, Zoe’s resurrection comes at significant cost to Frank and their colleagues/assistants, Niko (Donald Glover), Clay (Evan Peters), and Eva (Sarah Bolger). Niko and Clay actually contribute ideas to the resurrection project, while Eva, a college student without a background in science (hello, exposition device/magnet), walks around with a video camera recording dull, unengaging conversations and events as they occur. Eva also functions as the obligatory screamer/damsel-in-distress when literal hell breaks loose — or possibly just Zoe’s personalized idea of hell — after Frank resurrects Zoe. Over the course of a single night, Zoe undergoes a startling, not wholly convincing transformation, from traumatized patient/resurrectee to full-blown monster straight out of Carrie or The Fury (e.g., telepathy, telekinesis), an extremely bad temper (Pet Cemetery), and the ability to project nightmares into the minds of other characters (The Nightmare on Elm Street).
Once Gelb resurrects Zoe, leaving behind surface-deep discussions of faith (she’s Catholic, with all the guilt that apparently implies) vs. science (Frank inevitably wins with cold, hard logic), The Lazarus Effect turns into a rote, routine slasher film, with woefully underdeveloped characters abruptly facing their mortality within the claustrophobic confines of a severely underlit, underground lab. Where, at least initially, the characters sounded smart and made semi-rational decisions, they completely lose any semblance of common sense once Zoe makes her return. Actually, that’s not entirely true. Idiot plotting — to borrow Roger Ebert’s oft-used phrase — takes over The Lazarus Effect much earlier. Frank and Zoe inexplicably decide to bring their first successful test subject, a dog, into their home as a pet (more or less). As boneheaded as that decision sounds (because it is), it’s nothing compared to their later decision to bring the dog back home with them after it’s begun to display aggressive, potentially destructive behavior in the lab.
While the screenplay’s shortcomings belong to Dawson and Slater, Gelb doesn’t get a pass. He shows little, if any, ability to compose shots or move the camera in any kind of meaningful way. He repeatedly relies on cheap scares (e.g., constantly flickering lights, Zoe suddenly appearing behind another character) rather than carefully building tension and suspense within shots and through a combination of shots. Then again, choosing the director of a documentary — however well regarded that documentary might have been — about a sushi chef to direct a horror film requiring an entirely different set of skills and experience tells you almost everything you need to know about why The Lazarus Effect came out so poorly.