With Olivia Wilde, Mark Duplass, Evan Peters, Sarah Bolger, Donald Glover. Written by Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater. Directed by David Gelb. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of horror violence, terror and some sexual references. 83 minutes.
THE LAZARUS EFFECT is a low budget horror film from Blumhouse Productions, a company which has done such movies as “The Purge,” “Sinister,” and “Oculus” so you know they’re capable of interesting stuff. On the other hand they’re also responsible for the “Paranormal Activity” series, so there’s no guarantees.
Frank (Mark Duplass) and Zoe (Olivia Wilde) are scientists working on an experimental process that seems capable of bringing the dead back to life. At the film’s start they and their two assistants, Clay (Evan Peters) and Niko (Donald Glover) welcome new arrival Eva (Sarah Bolger) to record their progress. When it succeeds with a dog, this seems to be a big breakthrough.
Of course, the dog acts strangely and has no appetite, leading to some not unintelligent speculation of what little we know about death and whether such resurrections are a good thing. That sets the stage for most of this short film when things go wrong and Zoe dies. Frank, who was to marry her, insists on using the experimental process on her.
In terms of story this falls into the old mad scientist standby that “there are some things man is not meant to know.” Reviving Zoe unleashes intense and unstoppable brain activity, giving her unexpected new abilities. Things don’t look good for Frank and his team.
The film fits the Blumhouse formula perfectly. First, make the necessary deals to get some significant talent in the lead roles. Duplass and Wilde are better known for their work elsewhere, but they add some heft to what, in other hands, might have been two-dimensional roles. When they have their debate over life after death you get the sense of two people who had been arguing over this for some time. Wilde, in particular, is a surprising choice in this kind of film but a glance at her filmography shows an actress willing to take chances beyond her usual roles.
Then, keep the horror effects minimal. You get the sense that they wanted to make every dollar of their tight budget count. We know Zoe has slipped over to the dark side when her eyeballs turn black, an effect milked several times. Many of the scares involve the “boo effect” where a character (and the audience) have their attention drawn in one direction only to be startled by the appearance of something or someone coming from a different direction. It’s expected in such films but they do it a few times too many here.
The story concludes with a twist completely in keeping with the film’s premise and, not incidentally, opening the door to a sequel. That may or may not be a good thing, but if this film does well they’ll presumably have a bigger budget next time around. For some, a sequel to “The Lazarus Effect” might seem like trying to raise the dead. However, for those willing to accept the limitations inherent in this production, it’s a B-movie that manages to be more than a potboiler.
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.