Science, religion, horror in ‘The Lazarus Effect’
Horror movies are a little weird. We don’t always watch horror looking for good cinema, we watch it for effective scares. Some truly bad movies still have the ability to scare us.
“The Lazarus Effect” is very effective some of the time, but it’s interrupted by ferocious bouts of quirkiness. And not the good kind. Scientists are playing God by attempting to bring dead animals back to life. Inevitably, there’s an accidental death that forces our heroes to bring a human (Olivia Wilde) back to life instead. The only problem is that a few minutes of death here equals years and years in hell. Also, hell lends you superpowers for reasons nobody ever figures out.
There are some major issues in the shot choices and editing, which are both crucial in creating mood and rhythm for your scares to inhabit. “Lazarus” relies almost entirely on jump scares, where something jumps at a character from off-screen accompanied by a loud noise.
This means we can’t anticipate the scares, but we can predict them. Anticipation means we know they’re coming, we just can’t be sure of when. There’s a nervousness to anticipation. Often it happens when the audience sees something the characters can’t. “Lazarus” has no anticipation.
Prediction means we could time every scare’s arrival on a stopwatch. Predictable scares can still be frightening, but they don’t hold the same power in our psyche. They can make us jump, but they can’t lurk in the back of our minds and send chills up our spines. “Lazarus” can scare you, sure, but it won’t get inside your head.
Wilde does make up for a lot of this. She is extraordinarily good in a role that requires her to play across the board -- she can recite the technical babble behind her experiment like she’s on another episode of “House,” but there’s a later sequence in which she changes personalities depending on who’s in the room with her. She shines in these moments and gives us the only character who really feels like she belongs in that lab.
Unfortunately, and I hate to drag an actor out like this, Mark Duplass is awful. He plays the experiment’s co-leader and Wilde’s boyfriend. He’s been good in a lot of indie comedies, especially “Safety Not Guaranteed,” but he makes some very bad choices here. The interplay between Wilde and Duplass should create the dynamic of two scientists jousting over ideas (she believes in an afterlife, he doesn’t) and uncomfortably struggling to fit their philosophical disagreements into their more intimate relationship. Instead, it comes across as two actors hauling the quality of the movie in two very different directions. The rest of the cast -- including comedian/rap artist Donald Glover -- is charming, but isn’t the best fit for this film.
“Lazarus” is PG-13, rare for horror. There’s a hint of body horror and some trickles of blood but “Lazarus” uses some visual shortcuts to imply what you’ve seen in gorier horror movies. Honestly, I hardly noticed the absence -- the best horror is built on psychology, not blood. It means that “Lazarus” relies more on its ideas, and these do become more frightening as we grasp the broader religious and scientific ideas at play.
This creates a vicious cycle: a great horror idea gets you excited, but you’re disappointed by its failed execution. Wilde saves the moment through sheer acting willpower, and Duplass sabotages it by making all the wrong choices. This is saved by another great horror idea, but it’s executed badly and so on and so on.
It’s like a football game where whoever gets the ball last wins. Thankfully, we see Wilde more than Duplass, and the movie’s final twist adds a terrific motive to violence that earlier seemed a bit senseless. Home team wins.
“Lazarus” is a combination of great ideas, predictable yet effective jump scares, and a very out-of-place cast relying on Wilde as the only glue that holds it all together. On my website, we invented an award called Most Thankless Role for actors who do great work in B-movies. I have a feeling Wilde’s going to contend this year.
“The Lazarus Effect” might only be a puddle in the desert that is horror filmmaking right now, but that still makes it feel like an oasis worth visiting. Grading on that curve, a solid two stars out of four.
If you’re looking for a much better version of “Lazarus,” consider “Flatliners,” an often-forgotten horror gem from 1990 that brought together Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, and Kiefer Sutherland.
Gabe Valdez grew up in Chicago, went to college in Massachusetts, is a former news reporter in Floresville, Texas, and worked in politics in Oregon. He writes and directs films when he can find the time. Reviews, views, photos and more can be found at http://basilmarinerchase.wordpress.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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