Thursday, June 18, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: The Lazarus Effect (2015)

One of the key reasons that I love the horror genre is that it often explores the (permeable?) barrier between life and death. 

Some of the best horror films ever made -- and best horror novels ever written, to boot -- explore the boundaries of death, poke at them, and imagine answers about what may (or may not) exist on “the Other Side.”   

Accordingly, I find stories such as Shelley’s Frankenstein and Stoker’s Dracula endlessly fascinating because they obsess on issues such as the creation of life, forms of life beyond human, the existence of the soul, the pitfalls of immortality, and so on. 

And movies such as Flatliners (1990), of course, chart similar territory, asking what may happen when we visit the realm of death and return to the land of the living.  Similarly, films such as Soultaker (1990) ask us to believe there is "no stairway to Heaven," while efforts such as Brainstorm (1983) take us on an "ultimate trip" of the soul, following the death experience.

What might we bring back from the other side with us if we are lucky enough to return to this mortal coil? 

What might we see on that ultimate journey?

I write all this as prologue to my review of The Lazarus Effect (2015), a new horror film that, by rights, should be right up my alley.

The film’s narrative involves a team of dedicated scientists hoping to create a serum that can stimulate brain function in the recently-dead, thereby bringing them back to life. The obvious and relevant question in any such experiment is: what happens in the interval between death and resuscitation? 

If we possess a soul, where does it go while the body is quiescent, and furthermore, does it return to the body upon awakening?

I find such ideas tantalizing, and yet, to my extreme disappointment, The Lazarus Effect does almost nothing with such intriguing material.  

The story takes an attractive young scientist, Zoe (Olivia Wilde) to the frontier of death and beyond, but returns her as a tiresome, stock horror movie villain; one who can kill by thought and is evil through and through. Her eyes turn black like oil, and she terrorizes her former friends and colleagues relentlessly.

No significant thought is given as to why Zoe takes this menacing shape, or why acts in this murderous fashion -- like the latest coming of Freddy Krueger, right down to the entrapment of her scientist friends in an un-ending nightmare. 

Thus, the film is really an excuse for carnage and chaos, but the deeper ideas -- the ones about the frontiers of death -- are never explored at all.

Also, The Lazarus Effect looks to have been heavily tampered with in post-production. A major character, played by Donald Glover, is murdered, and his body is never found by the other would-be victims.  In fact, if memory serves, the character he plays, Niko, isn’t even mentioned after he dies.  Does everyone just forget he was ever there?

And the great Ray Wise, so powerful in Digging up the Marrow (which I review tomorrow for Found Footage Friday) appears for one short scene in the film, never to be seen or heard from again, either.  

The whole movie looks like it has been terminally re-jiggered with, so that it consists, simply, of story set-up and then a series of brutal, but not terribly original murder scenes.

Accordingly, The Lazarus Effect is the worst new horror movie I’ve seen since The Pyramid (2014), one of remarkable promise and utterly terrible, scattershot execution.

“When I died, I went somewhere.”

Married scientists Frank (Mark Duplass) and Zoe (Olivia Wilde) work with associates Niko (Glover) and Clay (Evan Peters) to develop a serum that can resuscitate those who recently died.

A documentary filmmaker, Eva (Sarah Bolger) joins the team, as it prepares to test the serum -- known as Lazarus -- on a deceased dog named Rocky.

Rocky is successfully revived, but has no appetite, and shows no interest in life. There is some fear that the canine may turn aggressive, but Frank and Zoe nonetheless take it home to their apartment, to observe it more closely. 

Meanwhile, Zoe is haunted by nightmares of an incident from her childhood.  She was in an apartment building fire as a little girl, and saw people clawing (under a locked door…) to escape the inferno.  

This traumatic incident has colored Zoe’s thinking, and she debates life after death with her husband.  

Frank believes that NDEs (Near Death Experiences) are simply chemical reactions in the brain. By contrast, Zoe believes that NDEs are portals opening to other dimensions or realities. She reminds Frank that energy never really dies; it only changes form.  

The question is: what form does our life transition to in the after-life?  

After the successful test of the serum with Rocky, the university shuts down the experiment, and a corporate overlord (Ray Wise) takes all the research into his possession.  Frank, Zoe and the others attempt to continue their work in the lab illicitly, but an accident involving electricity kills Zoe.

Desperate, Frank uses the Lazarus serum to revive his wife. But the Zoe who comes back isn’t precisely the Zoe who left this world…

“This is crossing a line.”

Horror movies have traditionally counseled patience and wisdom in the face of extreme scientific advances.  This is why we have so many mad scientist, “Don’t Tamper in God’s Domain” type movies (including Jurassic World [2015]).  In this way, one might make the claim that horror movies tend to be prudent ones, expressing the need for responsibility and restraint as we move forward into uncharted waters.

The Lazarus Effect very much falls into this category or sub-genre, but in doing so, doesn’t explore enough -- at least for my taste -- the Other Side.  One of the most intriguing scenes in the film sees Zoe returned from the dead after just a few minutes. 

But by her internal clock, Zoe has been gone for years.  She has been trapped in Hell all that time, reliving again and again her nightmare about the apartment fire.  

Zoe is thunderstruck by the fact that in her life she “did everything right” and yet “still ended up in Hell.”  She describes the after-life as a never-ending loop of the very worst moment of your mortal existence.

Intriguingly, there’s no Devil or demons there to haunt her, rather Zoe's own mind (or soul) seems to have created the shape of her particular spiritual journey  It is a shocking and terrifying discovery for certain, and yet The Lazarus Effect takes a left turn by transforming the returned Zoe into some kind of monster.  

Why does she now want to kill her colleagues?  Why is she now evil?

If you had knowledge of the after-life, and new psychic powers, would you use them for evil, knowing where you might end up?  

Or would you attempt, instead, to change your destination with those powers? 

The film provides absolutely no motive why Zoe should go totally Carrie White, given what she understands of the after-life.  

It is possible that Zoe has given up, realizing she can’t change her destiny, and therefore decides to go blood simple, but there is no evidence of this decision in either the dialogue, the action, or Wilde’s performance.  Zoe just comes back, expresses terror at the after-life, and then goes on a killing spree.

Again, this is different from what happens in the far superior Pet Sematary (1989).  There, the Indian burial ground has "turned sour," and so the soul you put in the ground isn't the soul that comes back.  There's some sense that something is malfunctioning there.

Not so here.  We have several scenes with the returned Zoe, acting normally, and in character. 

And then she just goes ape-shit evil. 

The story makes absolutely no sense, once Zoe starts killing her friends.  There’s a notation, I should add, for accuracy’s sake, that perhaps Zoe was bad to begin with.  But I don't buy it.

We get a revelation late in the film about the exact nature of the fire, and Zoe’s involvement with it. But this happens, importantly, before she was even seven years old.  Are we to believe that she is “bad” to the core, somehow? 

If so, that doesn’t really track with what we know of the character, either.  She seems like the best of all the scientists. She is faithful, open, and not ambitious to the point of insanity, like Frank is.

So it’s not like Zoe was born bad (like King's Christine), and the Hell Dimension merely augments that intrinsic, evil nature.  Instead, Zoe made a terrible mistake as a child.  And yet we’re supposed to see that as evidence of some deep, sinister nature?

From the moment that Zoe discusses her visit to Hell onward to the end of the film, nothing particularly interesting happens in The Lazarus Effect. 

Eva gets sent to the Hell dimension, though how precisely, Zoe sends her there is left pretty foggy. Now she can pull people into Hell?

Nor is The Lazarus Effect particularly picturesque, or appealing from a visual standpoint.  The film never leaves the university lab facility, and we’re left with one mildly interesting psychic murder after another.  One character is crushed in a metal locker; another chokes to death on an e-cig.  It is all minor league stuff, and not terribly well-orchestrated.

The great Ray Wise shows up for that one scene, and gets to tell the scientists that “there’s always a consequence for breaking the rules,” and yet, just once, I would like to see a horror film in which a new frontier is reached, but the consequences involve something different; not the pursuit of answers, but, perhaps, our readiness to understand or control the new order (think: Forbidden Planet [1956]). 

I wish The Lazarus Effect had the imagination to really explore its premise, the twilight world between life and death, or even the idea that man manifests his own reality, based on some sense of morality and ethics.  

Instead we just get the very old story of a man creating a monster through his pursuit of progress; a monster that must then be contended with, as it kills off a handful of not very interesting characters.

The Lazarus Effect actually says it best, and offers the best criticism of the movie:  “If we’re going to be asking big questions, we have to be ready for the answers,” concludes one character.

I agree.  

And unfortunately, no good answers are forthcoming in the film. The Lazarus Effect has a great promise, and absolutely no intelligent follow-through.

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