Review: ‘Lazarus Effect’ is effective if familiar mad scientist fare

Let's just assume that if you are a member of a scientific team in a horror film, things are going to end very, very badly for you.

And if the research you're doing involves life after death or, even worse, the re-animation of dead things, then the odds you die in a horrible manner increase exponentially. Unfortunately, no one warned the characters in David Gelb's “The Lazarus Effect,” and the results are understandably grim.

There is an art to pulling off one of these microbudget horror films set in a very limited space, and there is an efficiency to the script by Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater. They quickly establish the team, led by Frank (Mark Duplass) and Zoe (Olivia Wilde), who are working on a drug treatment that will allow for the successful revival of someone who has been dead with less chance of brain damage from oxygen loss. At least, I think that's what it does. It's basically “Mad Scientist Juice,” a magical goop that brings people back from the dead.

To be fair, they're not even testing it on humans as the film opens. They are still very early in the process,  but things heat up quickly when they have their first fully successful trial on a dog. Unfortunately, their success leads to a hostile seizure of their work by a corporation that owns the company financing the research. Faced with the loss of everything they've done, they break into the lab to run one last experiment.

Things don't go well.

The big trick in a movie like this is keeping it active and keeping the energy up, because you're basically shooting in a small basement for about 90% of the film. Part of the way you make it work is with a good cast, and this is a really strong ensemble. Duplass and Wilde have an easy chemistry as the leads, and Evan Peters, Donald Glover, and Sarah Bolger round out the team. Bolger's the outsider who comes in to shoot video of the experiments, and she's an effective audience surrogate for most of the film. She's the reason for whatever exposition the characters are forced to deliver, and it's handled well enough.

It helps that Gelb shoots this less like a horror film and more like a drama. When the film does finally kick into overt horror, it becomes more familiar and less overall effective. There are some big ideas introduced in regards to powers and mythology once Zoe comes back from the dead, but this film is handcuffed in the same way the first “Purge” was, restricted by budget to only dealing with the beginning of some of these ideas. If anything, I'm sorry the film doesn't push further into the SF ideas that it establishes. The monster movie ending is not the film's strongest choice, and it feels like they give in to genre convention.

The film is at its best when it makes the horror personal, and there are moments here where the cast connects and Gelb nails the weird feeling of the supernatural pushing in on these people in ways they don't expect. Michael Fimognari is a consistently reliable photographer who knows how to create mood without tipping over into self-parody, and Melanie Jones' production design is suitably mundane, never winking or telegraphing the “horror” side of things.

“The Lazarus Effect” is one of those entirely okay little horror films that used to be a staple of my home video diet. It's got a few moments, it's got a solid ensemble energy, and it pays just enough respect to the precursors in the genre, from “Frankenstein” to Cronenberg, to let you know that they know they're not inventing the wheel. It's solid enough that I wish it were significantly better, which is a way of saying I liked it… I just wish there was more to like.

“The Lazarus Effect” is in theaters now.