There have been plenty of horror-thrillers about people being brought back to life following death, but fewer that delve into the mysteries of an afterlife and the moral and physiological ramifications of human resurrection. "The Lazarus Effect" teases that it is going to dig deeper than the average studio-made genre offering, but just when things start to look up and get interesting, it discouragingly turns into a movie more concerned with its body count than asking tough questions. "Flatliners," this is not, and what a shame it is that director David Gelb (2012's "Jiro Dreams of Sushi") and screenwriters Luke Dawson (2008's "Shutter
") and first-timer Jeremy Slater are so beholden to cheap, repetitive scare tactics. Not a single audience jump is earneda result of sheer predictability and poorly timed editing. What is left shows glimmers of a promise left unfulfilled.
Engaged medical researchers Frank (Mark Duplass) and Zoe (Olivia Wilde) are on the verge of a scientific breakthrough, creating a serum that has the ability to resurrect deceased creatures while restoring their cognitive function. Working on this secret project with the university grant money they received to investigate neural decay in coma patients, their unsanctioned alternate experimentations have led to not only reanimating a dead canine, but inadvertently curing the dog's cataracts. When the review board catches wind of what they have been working on, all of Frank and Zoe's research is confiscated from them. Fearing that they will not receive due credit for their findings, they and their assistantsClay (Evan Peters), Niko (Donald Glover), and photographer Eva (Sarah Bolger)sneak back to the lab after hours with plans to duplicate the experiment. When a freak electrocution stops Zoe's heart and standard resuscitation does not work, Frank desperately injects the serum into his fiancée. The person who returns to them is not quite the same Zoe, however, her increased brain function and knowledge of what awaited her after death paving the way for a downward spiral of destruction that could very well threaten no less than the natural process of evolution itself.
"The Lazarus Effect" is like "Pet Sematary
" crossbred with "Carrie," then run through the glossy, micro-budgeted Blumhouse grinder. With little of the verve and thematic reverence of 2011's "Insidious
" and 2013's "The Purge
," the film's opening act, concentrating on studies involving the increasingly disoriented and aggressive revivified dog, fails to impress. Scenes end abruptly without a payoff, while others tend to fall back on flickering lights and people pouncing up suddenly to set the audience on edge. None of these ploys work until, finally, a recently resurrected Zoe reveals exactly what she witnessed on the other side. Her blunt verbal description, not to be revealed here, is horrifying in a way that the rest of the picture, with its levitating and telekinesis and strictly PG-13-level death scenes, is not. Director David Gelb, cinematographer Michael Fimognari (2014's "Jessabelle
") and editor Michael N. Knue (2007's "Death Sentence
") are most to blame for the ineffective frights on display. Set-pieces that should work, such as one where Frank and Eva find themselves in a morgue with not-so-dead bodies, peter out before they get going, while the entire dog subplot is forgotten about. By the end, the corpsy Cujo must still be roaming the laboratory, as confused as ever.
There is an unsettling undercurrent to "The Lazarus Effect," an encroaching sense of blackened portent that sneaks under the skin when characters recognize they have crossed a line and betrayed nature. Debates concerning science and religion, guilt and redemption, and Heaven and Hell signal that there are ideas at work in the script. Unfortunately, these flirtations with deeper subject matter are fleeting preludes to lame B-movie conventions as a black-eyed Zoe disappears from view as the lights go off and then pounces into frame when they come back on. These same general beats repeat again and again, and not even a superlative cast that includes Mark Duplass (2014's "Tammy
"), Olivia Wilde (2013's "Drinking Buddies
") and Sarah Bolger (2008's "The Spiderwick Chronicles
") can do much to salvage the mediocre delivery of a potentially auspicious premise. There is a crafty, creepy, provocative film lurking inside of "The Lazarus Effect," but, alas, it never comes out to play.