The Lazarus Effect is one of those horror films where lack of character logic makes it hard to root for the bodies that are inevitably going to pile on the floor.
The Lazarus Effect tells the dark story of scientist couple Frank (Mark Duplass) and Zoe (Olivia Wilde) who are pursuing groundbreaking discovery along with their research team (Donald Glover and Evan Peters), and Eva (Sarah Bolger), the young girl video documenting the team's study. Frank, Zoe and Co. have created a serum that could restore brain function to deceased organisms, hopefully providing new advancements in care for trauma patients, as well as others afflicted with degenerative diseases.
The first real breakthrough comes when the team is able to resurrect a dead dog, but as they begin to slowly discover, what came back isn't exactly the same as the dog that perished. The big twist comes when the team's research is forcibly seized by a large corporation - pushing Frank and Zoe to make drastic decisions in order to see their work come to fruition. Those snap decisions take a turn for the tragic, and in light of that disaster, with their backs against the wall, the team decides to do the unthinkable with the revolutionary serum in their possession.
But like with the dog: what comes back isn't at all the same as what perished.
The debut feature-film of documentary filmmaker David Gelb (Jiro Dreams of Sushi), The Lazarus Effect takes an overdone horror/thriller movie premise and manages to make it into something fresh and creepy... for about its first half. After the halfway mark, however, the film quickly unravels, revealing both a lack of vision and the technique necessary to execute all of the big ideas the film introduces. By some small miracle, despite killing its own momentum with a poorly-conceived narrative and logical gaps galore, The Lazarus Effect still manages to be creepy (if not scary) throughout.
The movie is really a half-step away from being a single-setting horror film. There are only a handful of locations, and of those handful, only the main laboratory set piece gets any extended use (beyond one or two scenes). That laboratory setting is put to good use, as Gelb and his set designers find ways of turning the sterile locale into a true house of horror, with concepts and scenes that are frightening and/or creepy even in the limited space.
In terms of general direction: Gelb seems competently adept at telling a story in the visual medium - and then, at creating good scares and horror using visual manipulation as his tool. Where he needs more work as a feature-film director is in sequencing and connectivity; The Lazarus Effect collapses under the sheer amount of ideas or concepts that play out in stunted progression, or are outright jilted by the forward movement of the film. The logic of cause and effect - of action and consequence and resonance - seems completely out of whack, which is even more noticeable due to the movie being set in a confined location.
The same scrutiny can be applied to the script by Jeremy Slater (Fantastic Four) and Luke Dawson (Shutter). In concept, The Lazarus Effect is nothing new (See: Re-Animator, Pet Sematary); in setup it's interesting enough and offers a lot of good, creepy potential; but in execution (especially the film's odd final act) it's cumbersome and clumsy - mostly tripped up by the logical flaws inherent in its single-setting location. Picking people off one by one within a confined space just doesn't work, logically speaking.
The cast of the film is a who's-who of young popular faces. Having actors like Mark Duplass (The League), Evan Peters (American Horror Story, X-Men: DoFP) and Donald Glover (Community) riffing off one another works naturally and organically - and somehow even believably as a team of science whiz kids. Once Upon A Time star Sarah Bolger holds down the 'scream queen' slot, but has little else to work with, since her character - documentary filmmaker Eva - is an enigma the movie only hints at, but never commits to exploring. Meanwhile, Olivia Wilde starts off doing something in the vein of her House M.D. character, but eventually steals the show by portraying a genuinely creepy and frightening horror movie villain. Definite commitment on her part.
With a tight runtime, it's not that much of a chore to sit through, but The Lazarus Effect is one of those horror films where lack of character logic makes it hard to root for the bodies that are inevitably going to pile on the floor. Not a terrible start for Gelb, but better seam work is definitely needed on his next project.
The Lazarus Effect is now playing in theaters. It is 83 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of horror violence, terror and some sexual references.