"That's what hell is. You relive the worst moment of your life on a loop over and over and you can never wake up."
Grab a knife and start cutting through the irony, folks. If there's anything at all positive I can say about the new horror film The Lazarus Effect, it's thankfully not a found footage movie. Well, it kind of is, but at least it's not 100% found footage. Let's start over. If there's anything positive I can say about this film it's that it doesn't overstay its welcome. Clocking in, without credits, at a brisk 76 minutes, the film is never boring. It's underdeveloped, undercooked, and thoroughly half-assed, but it's never boring. In fact, it almost feels like a bold experiment in shucking that age old horror convention of building mood and atmosphere, and jumping right into the stuff people paid their money to see.
The problem with doing it that way is that psychological horror doesn't work without the world building, character development, and, you know, horror. Imagine if The Shining had cut from the family checking into the hotel to Nicholson wielding an axe like a madman. Sure, there would be tangential scares that come from seeing a guy who seemed normal enough burying an axe in Scatman Crothers' mid-section, but you wouldn't know why it was scary. That, in a nutshell, is what's wrong with The Lazarus Effect. It doesn't want to take the time to develop these characters beyond broad stereotypes: obsessive scientist, quasi-religious girlfriend, stoner guy, woman, black dude. It's about as deep as a money shot compilation porno, and even without being well versed in that particular genre, I've now given you a fairly vivid picture of what we're dealing with here.
Olivia Wilde and Mark Duplass play a couple who are working on a serum to bring recently deceased people back to life for a period of a few minutes, in hopes that it may give first responders a critical set of additional minutes to work their magic. If that sounds asinine, it's more than likely because it is, but whatever. We've got to get some sort of framework for this reanimation serum developed by a guy named Frank; yeah, it's that kind of movie, though curiously the rest of his name isn't N. Stein. When their trial on a dead dog proves to be too successful, to the point where the dog is essentially a zombie, their experiment is shut down by a mustache twirling pharmaceutical company.
Motivated by plot convenience, they stash some serum away which will come in handy when Zoe (Wilde) is electrocuted, giving Frank all the leeway he needs to finally play god and bring her back to life. Much like the dog, she seems fine at first, but is haunted by visions from her childhood of a burning building, and is convinced that she was in hell during the hour that she was dead. Had the film not rushed through the somewhat interesting faith vs. science set-up it gave us between Frank and Zoe, this might be a tad more interesting, but the film demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding about what it is that makes horror scary. The film is similarly hampered by its PG-13 rating, though I'm forced to admit that it would not have necessarily benefited from an R. It likely just would have been more gruesome as opposed to mining the harder rating for more terrifying imagery.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this film is how rote, clichéd, and pedestrian it is, coming as it does from director David Gelb, who directed the visually sumptuous documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Had I not known that going in, you might have never been able to convince me that these two films both came from the same man. It reeks of a director for hire situation, and Gelb was more than likely hampered by the terrible screenplay by Jeremy Slater and Luke Dawson, the latter of whom penned the American remake of Shutter, another misguided J-horror rehash.
The cast is comprised of very good actors, all of whom give themselves over to the experience, but it's all for naught. I'm honestly not sure what attracted them to this film in the first place, other than perhaps a wealth of character development that ended up on the cutting room floor. Olivia Wilde is gifted with the ethereal quality that made Sissy Spacek so effective in films like Carrie, but she's not given much to do beyond wander hallways in black contact lenses, and then jutting her face out of the dark in time with screeching strings on the soundtrack. If the film's five million dollar budget is to be believed, then I can't even begin to think that any of them did it for the money, although Mark Duplass I'm sure can use whatever money he earned to film another one of his mumblecore movies.
Without that crucial and necessary set-up, the film's payoffs are all hollow and meaningless, leaving one to wonder why we should mourn the loss of Zoe or empathize with Frank. You can cut a hell of a trailer from the best moments in the film, but when even 75 minutes only yields two and a half of good material, that's a fundamental problem. Is there a better, longer version of this movie out there somewhere? Maybe, but I'm honestly not all that blown away by what I've seen to want to see a better version of this film. You have to give an audience something to cling to and care about, and this film just assumes that you've seen enough movies that do just that for you to be able to keep pace.
Had this film come out at the height of the J-horror craze that gave us such films as The Ring and The Grudge, perhaps the studio would have given them more time and money to flesh it out into something halfway decent. As it stands, however, it's a rushed, half-assed film that doesn't have the conviction of its half-hearted beliefs. Producer Jason Blum's Blumhouse Productions is second perhaps only to Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes in churning out glossy, visually uninteresting horror films that continue to perpetuate the notion that horror is the most disposable genre of them all. Hopefully the sparsely attended screening I went to is an indication that these films are on their way out, but in an age of infinitely better, similarly budgeted films like The Babadook, this feels like a thorough waste of resources, talent, and most of all, time.
[Photos via Box Office Mojo]