The Lazarus Effect (2015)
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of horror violence, terror and some sexual references
The Lazarus Effect is a film that has a few interesting ideas, good performances, and cool scenes in it, making it a great shame how it finds itself constantly ensnared by the cliches of modern supernatural horror. It's jump scares ahoy on this one, with the few points of light shining through all too frequently tossed aside and ignored. If you're a fan of the surprisingly high-profile cast assembled for this film, I might give it a tentative recommendation for a matinee or a Redbox, but otherwise, it's the latest in a long line of cookie-cutter ghost/demon movies.
(Note: I have never seen Flatliners, the film that a lot of other people have compared this to, so I wouldn't know if that film handled this one's basic premise any better or differently.)
The plot revolves around a team of medical students who have crafted a serum that they hope can regenerate dead tissue, making it possible to bring back to life people who have died on the operating table. The Catholic university they attend objects strongly to their research, though it's shown that corruption also plays a role in this objection; they want to hand the students' research to a pharmaceutical company. When they get shut down, the students continue their tests in secret, but when one of them, Zoe (Olivia Wilde), dies in a freak accident in the lab, her boyfriend and fellow researcher Frank (Mark Duplass) uses the serum on her in a last-ditch effort to save her. It works, but Zoe comes back wrong; during the hour that she was technically dead, her soul had been spending what felt like years in Hell, watching on a loop the fire that destroyed her apartment building and killed her neighbors with no way to save them. Furthermore, she now has freaky psychic powers. Zoe, a devout Catholic, decides that, if all her attempts to make up her guilt over the fire still failed to keep her out of Hell, then that means she's evil -- and therefore, she might as well act like it, turning against the rest of the team and trying to murder them.
There are so many ways that this film's story could've been more interesting than the rote scream-fest that we ultimately got. The subplot about the pharmaceutical company stealing the students' research, for one, exists only in the background, never built upon after the first act and there just to get the rescue workers to come down to save what's left of the main characters at the end. More importantly, however, Zoe should've been a far more interesting character than the one-note monster she devolved into. For a film in which religious themes play so strongly, it's never once implied that Zoe is possessed; rather, the serum has supercharged her brain and given her these powers, and her rampage is all about her going insane over her vision of Hell. There was a great villain buried under here, a woman whose own faith turned against her and caused her to commit heinous acts out of a belief that, since she was already damned, there was no reason for her to continue acting with any sense of morality or decency. And yet, from the moment she has her "epiphany", she turns completely into a cartoonish supervillain. Olivia Wilde tries to give her some depth, and to her credit she makes for a chilling presence once she starts killing, but there's nothing for her to grab onto. She has no reason to kill these people beyond "for the evulz". Maybe they could've written some underlying tension between her and the rest of the team, something that would make her want to murder them and only stopping because she lacked the means and had too strong a conscience, but we never get anything besides a polite disagreement with her boyfriend Frank over science and faith.
It doesn't help that the scares here all follow a pattern that anybody who's ever seen a movie of this ilk can figure out: characters walk around a tense situation, then the sound goes dead for a few seconds before BOOM! Loud noise and something jumps out. It had already gotten old before I saw this film, and this film uses it constantly with no variations. The cast at least played it well enough. In addition to the aforementioned Olivia Wilde, the standouts included Donald Glover and Evan Peters having fun with their parts, with Ray Wise also making the best of what amounted to little more than a cameo. Unfortunately, Mark Duplass and Sarah Bolger, the two weak links in the cast, also turned out to live the longest out of all of them, with Bolger especially making for a fairly dull "final girl" at the end.
Score: 2 out of 5
It's not a wholly irredeemable film, but some good performances and an interesting idea don't make up for all the fluff and cliches that they're buried under. Save your money for a better movie.