“The Lazarus Effect,” a new low-budget thriller starring Olivia Wilde and Mark Duplass, is about giving people a second chance. A new serum formulated by a group of young, good-looking geniuses prolongs the time after death that doctors can continue to safely try and revive patients. But, as always, when you trifle with the natural order of things there are unexpected consequences. “If we are going to be asking big questions we have to be ready for the answers,” says Zoe (Wilde), who, as it turns out, wasn’t as prepared for the answers as she thought.
Liberally borrowing from “Frankenstein’s” playing God cautionary tale, “The Lazarus Effect” sees researchers Zoe, Frank (Duplass) and Niko (Donald Glover) create a formula that defies death, bringing deceased animals back to life. (“What if we ripped him from doggie heaven?” wonders Zoe, weighing the ethics of reviving the dearly departed.) The mutts come back a little more ornery than they were the first time they were alive, but a trial run or two are successful enough that big pharma swoops in and steals their idea. In a last ditch attempt to prove their ownership over the serum they secretly do one final test but when the experiment goes awry they are forced to do an unscheduled human run with horrifying results. For such smart people they sure do a lot of stupid things.
“The Lazarus Effect” is the latest shocker from Blumhouse Productions, the folks responsible for the low-fi thrills of “Paranormal Activity,” “Sinister” and “Oculus.” They value atmosphere over actual horror, using shadows and jump scares to get pulses racing. Sometimes it’s very effective—“Insidious” leaves viewers with an icky unease that’s hard to shake—but just as often they fall flat.
“The Lazarus Effect,” clocking in at an economical 75 minutes, crams a lot into its scant running time, but fails to fully develop any of its ideas. It’s alive with Frankenstein references, but where old Frankenstein lumbered around, mostly meaning well when he wasn’t throwing little girls into lakes and being menaced by angry villagers, the recently deceased here flits around maniacally. They (THERE WILL BE NO SPOILERS HERE) have high brain activity, can read minds and move things telepathically, which you’d think would be pretty cool, but their new talents only appear to make them angry. Combine that with an undeveloped religion vs. science subplot that finds our undead reliving the most traumatic moment of their lives over and over again and you’re left with bits and pieces of a story that are never stitched together to form a whole.
“The Lazarus Effect” has some corny lines—“Did I just die?”—a few unintentionally funny moments—the human comes back to life covered in a white sheet, like a kid’s ghost costume—and atmosphere to burn. What it doesn’t have is the sense of fun necessary to pull off the cheesy moments or the scares to sell it as a full-blown horror story.
If the Paranormal Activity movies curdle your blood and The Conjuring kept you up at night, perhaps A Haunted House 2 will be more your style. A humorous hybrid of horror hits, it stars Marlon Wayans and Jaime Pressly in a sequel to the popular (but critically lambasted) 2013 comedy.
According to IMDB in the new film Wayans has “exorcised the demons of his ex” and is trying to start his life anew with his girlfriend. Unfortunately his new house turns out to be haunted and, even worse, his back-from-the-dead ex has moved in across the street.
It’s all played for laughs and will likely not give audiences nightmares but it would be interesting to know how the makers of movies like Sinister, The Possession, and Insidious feel about having their movies made fun of.
Some filmmakers are flattered.
Night of the Living Dead icon George A. Romero enjoyed the zombie takeoff Shaun of the Dead so much he asked star Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright to appear in Land of the Dead. The duo can be seen chained up in a 12-second cameo under a sign that reads Take Your Picture with a Zombie during the film’s carnival sequence.
But not everyone gets the joke.
Years ago Boris Karloff made it known he wasn’t very happy about a horror comedy. He was approached to play the Monster in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein but declined because he felt the duo’s brand of slapstick would be an insult to horror movies. Nonetheless he did some promo for the film—there are publicity pictures of him buying tickets at the box office—and later appeared in Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff and Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Another horror legend said yes to Meet Frankenstein but no to the comedy. The movie was the only other time Bela Lugosi played Dracula on the big screen and he played it straight.
“There is no burlesque for me,” he said. “All I have to do is frighten the boys, a perfectly appropriate activity. My trademark will be unblemished.”
Finally, the movie Young Frankenstein gave overdue credit to an old time movie studio technician. When Mel Brooks was prepping the film he discovered that Ken Strickfaden, the designer of the “mad scientist” electrical machinery in the Universal Frankenstein films, had all the equipment from the original movies stored in his garage. Strickfaden agreed to rent Mel the props and received a screen credit, which he hadn’t been given on the original films.
You can tell a great deal about a movie by the trailers that run before the opening credits. It’s a way of marketing upcoming movies to an audience already in the mood for, say, a comedy, or in the case of “Sinister,” a horror flick.
The promos before this Ethan Hawke chiller include “Texas Chainsaw 3D” and the “Silent Hill” sequel, which is set in a “town hell calls home.” By the time the opening credits of the main feature have played–a home movie of a family being hung in slow motion–you are well prepared for the creepy tale that follows.
Ethan Hawke is a true crime author whose last big hit was ten years previous. Convinced he has stumbled on a new real life mystery with the makings of a best seller he moves his family to a small town and a new house. What he doesn’t tell his wife or kids is that the house is actually the scene of the crime he’s investigating. In the attic he discovers a box of home movies that unlock some sinister secrets.
“Sinister” is a good old-fashioned spooky movie where it is misty at night, things go bump in the night, and very door in the house needs to be oiled. It mostly makes do without any special effects, which helps add some authentic atmosphere. AS we see here you don’t need CGI to make a horror movie, just some stylish camera work, an anxiety inducing soundtrack and weird looking kids with lots of dark eye make-up.
In some ways “Sinister” is sort like “The Shining’s” little brother. That’s not a spoiler, Ethan Hawke doesn’t chop his way through a door, but he does play a writer, driven to extremes by circumstance and the supernatural, who moves his family to a new and strange place only to have his work have unintended repercussions on everyone in the household.
Ethan Hawke, as a desperate author convinced he’s on to the story that could revitalize his career, is in just about every frame of the film and carries it. He slowly lets the darkness of his investigation get to him as he tries to put himself in the crime victim’s head space.
Also interesting are James Ransone as the jokingly named Deputy So-and-So, who adds some unexpected comedic flair when the going gets grim, and Vincent D’Onofrio as the occult specialist—there’s always an occult specialist in these movies. How else to explain the unexplainable?
“Sinister” mostly shies away from getting really down and dirty—most of the grim stuff is left to our imaginations or filtered through Hawke’s shocked reactions—but it builds tension really well and will leave you unsettled.