Wilde in The Lazarus Effect

Classic resurrection horror or Netflix filler?

Top-flight indie talent can’t save The Lazarus Effect from feeling like a deadly serious mismash of everything from The Exorcist to Paranormal Activity.

The Lazarus Effect
Evan Peters, Mark Duplass, Olivia Wilde and Sarah Bolger

Whenever The AV Club interviews a veteran character actor about their choice to appear in one of these modern Sand Godzillas vs. The Monster Mermaids-type deals, they get the same answer: “They told me I was going to get killed by a monster, and I never did that before.” What was once seen as an unfortunate step in a career that was either going uphill or downhill is now seen as a fun way to tap into our own nostalgia. This thinking is the only way I can understand a film as low-rent and junky as The Lazarus Effect gathering such a cast of top-flight indie talent instead of, say, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and a bunch of kids from the WB. The Lazarus Effect’s call sheet may read like a high-profile Sundance hopeful, but it’s Netflix filler through-and-through.

Frank (Mark Duplass) and Zoe (Olivia Wilde) are a couple of scientists who are working on a very powerful serum that may revive vital signals in dead patients. While the serum is originally designed to give surgeons and doctors a second chance at a patient who’s flatlining, their final product turns out to be enough to revive a dead dog. Having had their research shut down after raising the ire of the (mostly religious) university’s higher ups, they decide to sneak in with their fellow scientists (Evan Peters and Donald Glover) and a young student filming a documentary on them (Sarah Bolger) and finish the work they’ve started. Zoe accidentally gets electrocuted in the process, and Frank decides that the only chance he has to save his lady love is to shoot her up with the highly unstable, highly experimental serum they’ve concocted.

Wilde in The Lazarus Effect
Wilde in The Lazarus Effect

The first fiction feature of director David Gelb (Jiro Dreams of Sushi), The Lazarus Effect plays like a deathly serious mishmash of junky horror of years past: Firestarter, Flatliners, The Exorcist and Paranormal Activity are all referenced. You’d think that with a cast of such indie dramedy ringers there’d be some wit or self-reflexiveness within, but it’s all very dour and safe, like one of the millions of aseptic slashers that came in the wake of Scream. The mechanics of horror films are there (they’re what, I assume, drew the cast to this film: the opportunity to earnestly spew clichés and die in a comically over-the-top way) but it’s mechanical and rote at best.

It’s hard to discuss the movie at any length without spoiling it — at a trim 83 minutes, it spends well over half of its running time establishing a premise that it has little faith in. There’s something to be said for the film’s strict adherence to genre limitations: it has a small cast, limited locations and a script that doesn’t get too bogged down in nonsense, but limitations are no fun if you’re using them to create something as warmed-over as this.

I think Gelb understands the genre. He understand the elements that need to be in place and the emotions that need to be stirred up by a horror film, but The Lazarus Effect never once feels necessary or earnest. It looks slick and professional, but its talented cast never really sells the premise as something more than a patently ridiculous little horror film. It feels like the work of professionals who are above this, going through the motions of something they understand as beneath them. The Lazarus Project is what happens when you hand six cubicle-dwelling pencil pushers a horror-movie report due at the end of the week: everything’s there, I guess, but this isn’t really what anyone asked for.

The Lazarus Effect opens in theatres today, Friday, Feb. 27. Watch the trailer here: