Sometimes a horror movie can get away with a creepy core concept, some solid scares and little more, but The Lazarus Effect is proof that thoughtful direction and wholehearted performances can take familiar material to another level.
The movie stars Olivia Wilde and Mark Duplass as Zoe and Frank. They’re in a longterm relationship and have been engaged for quite a while, but when they scored a grant to develop a potentially groundbreaking serum, they had no choice but to postpone the nuptials. However, now they’re finally on the cusp of solidifying the Lazarus serum. As Frank pitches it, it’s a substance that would give healthcare professionals more time to do their job, but it essentially boils down to a serum that can bring the dead back to life.
Sure, there are some elements of The Lazarus Effect that we’ve seen before, but what makes it a standout horror film is that it takes the time to let you get to know the characters before jumping into the more scare-heavy material. The film isn’t just out to wow you with a mind-blowing discovery that goes awry and leads to gruesome results. It’s much more so about how the people involved come to make the discovery, what the serum could mean for the world and how using it affects them on a personal level as well.
Per usual, Duplass makes for a likable lead, but The Lazarus Effect is Wilde’s show. In fact, she’s a scene stealer well before the experiment even breaks down. Wilde brings such an honest warmth to Zoe that it’s effortless to get behind the character and understand why she’s willing to do whatever it takes to keep the Lazarus program going. It’s not one of those situations where you’re yelling at the screen because it’s obvious a character is making a stupid decision and is bound to pay for it. Wilde and her co-stars make you believe – and hope – going a step too far could be worth the risk.
Zoe and Frank are front and center, but then we’ve also got their colleagues, Niko (Donald Glover) and Clay (Evan Peters), and Eva (Sarah Bolger), a student they hire to film their experiments. All three flirt with familiar stereotypes, but Glover, Peters and Bolger all deliver work that makes the characters their own. They’ve got great chemistry with one another, you enjoy spending time with them and genuinely want to see them succeed, and that makes the earlier portions of The Lazarus Effect an absolute pleasure to watch and then the more horrific components especially tense.
You want to see some serious range? You’ve got to check out what Wilde does with her character post-Lazarus serum injection. It’s very clear Zoe isn’t herself, but there’s also just enough of the original character in there to make you understand Frank’s predicament. He can’t lose her, but something clearly isn’t right. Does he save himself and his colleagues by putting an end to it, or is there still hope for Zoe? It’s a curious, highly engaging conflict that makes the second half of The Lazarus Effect so much more than the all too familiar “pick them off one-by-one” scenario.
There are a couple of noticeably thin components of the script, namely the issue that arises regarding the company funding the Lazarus program, but the film moves so swiftly and the characters are so engaging that it in no way detracts from the experience. Writers Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater also manage to include the empirical vs spiritual argument in a way that feels somewhat natural. However, I am inclined to believe that the more religious element of the film works because of strong performances and successful visual transitions and not necessarily because it’s a particularly novel, interesting scenario.
The Lazarus Effect is an especially strong start for director David Gelb (Jiro Dreams of Sushi) in the narrative feature department. The pacing here is impeccable and, as the film stills suggested, Gelb absolutely nails the visuals. The movie’s got an unusually warm quality to it, especially for a film that takes place in a sterile hospital-like environment. The lighting is downright stunning, especially the use of practical lab lights, and Gelb’s shot composition is spot-on. You always see what you need to see, but he finds just the right places to pull back and use the “show less” tactic to amplify scares in ways you might not expect.