The field of resuscitation medicine is a busy area of science these days. Researchers are exploring the relatively new idea that death is more of a process than an event, and that patients can potentially be brought back to life hours after vital organs stop functioning.
That's the jumping-off point for The Lazarus Effect, a lean and effective horror thriller about the dangerous twilight zone between life and death. The movie mixes science and the supernatural in equal proportions, with a story that's smarter than the average scary-movie script.
Mark Duplass and Olivia Wilde headline as Frank and Zoe, two ambitious scientists several years into a research project on reviving dead tissue. Also on the team are lab assistants Niko (Donald Glover) and Clay (Evan Peters) and documentary filmmaker Eva (Sarah Bolger). The team is employed by a fictional Christian-affiliated university—this will become relevant later—and bankrolled by pharmaceutical interests.
Early scenes concerning the resurrection of a pig and a dog are nice and squirmy. Director David Gelb comes from the documentary world—he made the excellent Jiro Dreams of Sushi—and here, he shows a steady hand with narrative storytelling. The movie plays fair within the rules of its own premise and has fun exploiting phobias around medical horror (needles, blood, scalpels and so on). Frank is a hardcore rationalist, but Zoe has some faith-based concerns about the experiments. Of their first canine patient, she asks: "What if we ripped him out of doggie heaven? What if he didn't want to come back?"
Since the trailers and posters already give it away, it's no spoiler to disclose that Zoe herself soon makes a round trip to and from the afterworld. It's here that the story's science turns decidedly paranormal, with details about serums and neurons blending into theories about Heaven and Hell.
At a brisk 82 minutes, The Lazarus Effect is as a modest but tightly scripted horror movie, with effective scares, creepy visuals and cat-and-mouse tension in the increasingly lethal laboratory. Producer Jason Blum (Paranormal Activity) specializes in this kind of high-concept, low-budget storytelling. The filmmakers offer playful nods to earlier films such as Flatliners and, of course, Frankenstein ("It's alive!"). They also acknowledge the unwritten rules concerning the fate of African-American characters in horror films. Poor Donald Glover.
Film critic Roger Ebert was a champion of the idea that movies should be assessed relative to their genre and intent. The Lazarus Effect isn't inspired cinema, but as a horror film, it achieves what it's aiming for. The filmmakers think enough of their audience to provide a story that holds together, which is more that you can say for most entrants in this arena. It's a good scary movie. No complaints.