Scientific hubris has been a load-bearing theme in the rickety house of horror since at least the days of Hawthorne and Shelley. The Lazarus Effect is the latest film to harshly sentence its lab-coated characters for tip-toeing too far out onto the frozen lake of progress without first checking to make sure the ice is thick enough. But if their mortal sin is in playing God, the filmmakers’ is in playing it safe.
The cast list almost fools you into thinking you’re watching a different, smarter kind of movie. Mark Duplass and Olivia Wilde play coupled neuroscientists—working with a small research crew that also includes Evan Peters (American Horror Story) and Donald Glover (Community)—whose experiments have long since veered past “ethically dubious” and straight to “haven’t any of you idiots ever read Pet Sematary?” By injecting a cerebellum-repairing serum into the brain of a dead dog—and a couple of syringes’ worth of technical gibberish into the script—they have managed to wring life from death.
By the time they’re forced to move up their human trials, revivifying Wilde’s character after a lab accident, The Lazarus Effect has settled into a familiar rhythm. Like everything and everyone boomeranged back from the beyond, she returns with a little extra freight. The film walks the line between a scientific and non-scientific explanation for its horror, overlapping its magisteria, and there are even a couple of scenes of perfunctory arguments along the science/religion fault line. There’s the germ of an interesting idea here—that hell is just one bad psychedelic trip of our own fashioning, one that has driven an increasingly unstable and psychically powerful Wilde mad—but instead of building the story around it, or delving into its conceptual insanity by being more like, say, an Altered States, the film just fillips it to the side and turns into a full-bore slasher movie with flickering lights and jump scares.
The researchers are each in turn (and in order of character development) doled retribution for daring to go too far, but not all arrogance is to be punished. I would have loved to see more from the filmmakers, daring to fail while staking out some new terror incognita instead of just going through the motions of an experiment for which we already have the results. C-