Sometime in late 2012 I had the unique opportunity to catch the beautifully-filmed fine cuisine documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, (a movie most people have experienced through the power of Netflix) on the big screen. Running late from grabbing a sushi dinner myself, I had to sit in the front row, craning my head to take in the majestic sushi specimens that towered over me. It was an overwhelming experience, one I’m unlikely to ever forget. Never in my wildest imagination would I have assumed that the director, who was present at that screening for a Q&A, would follow up that beautiful film with a drearily cheap sci-fi horror that feels more like a particularly eccentric episode of a CSI type show or a SyFy Original Movie than anything that belongs in a proper theater, but that’s exactly what happened.
The Lazarus Effect is cheap. And ugly. And hopelessly shallow. Its worst quality of all, though, is the level of talent it roped into its murky depths. Not only is Jiro Dreams of Sushi director David Gelb suffering a sophomore slump here, respectable actors Mark Duplass, Donald Glover, Olivia Wilde, and Evan Peters (who had a great turn as Quicksilver last year in X-Men: Days of Future Past) are all dragged down by his misstep. The movie’s dire quality is apparent as early as the opening credits, which play over grotesque medical footage and a staged lab experiment in which a dead dog is revived. It’s a cheap way to fish for a reaction from the audience, flatly showing something horrific & ugly instead of building suspense to it the way a decent horror movie typically would. That approach is a major indication of what’s to come.
Since the movie’s atmosphere never allows tension to build properly, the best chance you have of enjoying The Lazarus Effect is as a camp fest. The basic premise is that a doctor named Frank (-enstein! Get it? Get it?) is experimenting on bringing deceased canines back to life in hopes his techniques will give surgeons more time to operate in life & death medical emergencies. But what if he’s bringing his subjects back from Doggie Hell instead of Doggie Heaven? Indeed, the first revived dog starts to act a little freaky, but that doesn’t stop Dr. Frank from going off the rails & reviving a love one who passes away unexpectedly. When his first human subject rises from the dead, she’s literally a ghost under a sheet, which is a sort of goofy moment. By the time she’s reading minds, abusing her telekinesis, and (the most evil thing of all!) levitating, she’s gone full goof.
The problem with reading the film this way is that it’s rarely silly enough to be laughable. There’s some amusing moments involving the evil dog (who never gets to levitate or read minds himself, unfortunately) & I’m fairly certain this is the only film I’ve ever seen where a vape pen is used as a murder weapon, but for the most part it’s just hopelessly bland. The Lazarus Effect is much more concerned with exploring kiddy pool depth ideas about a scientific mind confronted with spiritual questions he can’t explain logically than it is with entertaining its audience or not looking like a pile of wet garbage. Whether you take the film seriously or try to enjoy it as a goof, there’s just not much there. I keep asking myself how this was made by the same guy who brought the world Jiro Dreams of Sushi and I just can’t come up with anything but the question itself. How? Just how? That’s about the only haunting or even vaguely interesting element at play here.