Friday, February 27, 2015

The Lazarus Effect: Dead on arrival

The Lazarus Effect (2015) • View trailer 
One star. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, horror violence and mild sensuality

By Derrick Bang

This is what passes for scary these days?

This laughable, ludicrous swill?

Modern audiences are getting very short-changed.

With his suddenly homicidal fiancée prowling the darkened corridors outside their lab,
Frank (Mark Duplass) cautions Eva (Sarah Bolger) to stay quiet, while he concocts a
silly plan to save the day.
This flaccid rubbish is bad in so many ways, one scarcely knows where to begin. Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater’s irrationally asinine script? David Gelb’s artless, hammer-handed directing? The cast of blithering idiots who couldn’t inject credibility into their dialogue if their lives depended on it?

In fairness, bad line readings aren’t entirely the fault of the cast; nobody could have made this clumsy nonsense sound persuasive. That said, the performances also don’t deserve placement on anybody’s résumé.

At its core, this is just another sloppy re-tread of the hoary Frankenstein saga, with bioengineered chemicals taking the place of good ol’ lightning. This, too, is part of the problem; Dawson and Slater haven’t an original thought between them, and seem content to blatantly rip off vastly superior predecessors.

And they can’t even do that well.

Frank (Mark Duplass) and his fiancée Zoe (Olivia Wilde), running a research lab at a fictitious, Berkeley-based university, are being assisted by graduate students Niko (Donald Glover) and Clay (Evan Peters). The team recently has hired an undergraduate videographer, Eva (Sarah Bolger), to record their progress.

(One cliché of bad writing, by the way, is the affectation of granting people no more than first names: Nothing calls faster attention to wafer-thin, one-dimensional characters.)

Although Eva’s presence gives Gelb an excuse to dabble in “found footage”-style video inserts, this affectation — mercifully — quickly is replaced by Michael Fimognari’s conventional cinematography. Which, to be fair, is a point in Gelb’s favor.


Frank and Zoe apparently obtained their original grant to develop a chemical “boost” that would help revive patients who code on an operating table: something akin to adrenalin or defibrillation. Somewhere along the way, though, they began attempting to resurrect deceased animals with their gloppy white formula; they finally succeed with a dog named Rocky.

Champagne all around.

But Rocky has come back ... ah ... different: warier, stronger and more aggressive. (Cue strong memories of Stephen King’s vastly superior Pet Sematary ... and I mean the book, not the lousy 1989 film adaptation.) Clay spouts the pseudo-scientific gibberish that “explains” this transformation: Thanks to the injected glop, Rocky’s brain is building massive neural networks, moving well past the usual limits of his species. Or some such nonsense.

Not sure why that would make him so violent, but hey, I’m no brain surgeon. (Neither is anybody in this movie. Obviously.)

This instability notwithstanding, Frank and Zoe blithely take Rocky home, to “keep an eye on him.” What follows is a narrative miscalculation so severe — so totally silly — that Gelb loses whatever hold he had on viewers up to this point. Late that night, Fimognari’s camera pulls back from a tight close-up on a sleeping Zoe ... to reveal Rocky, silently hovering over her on the bed.

Gelb may have intended this reveal to be scary. Based on the snickers and catcalls that erupted from Wednesday’s preview screening audience, viewers apparently thought that Rocky had something decidedly naughty in mind. Which wouldn’t have been more random than anything else endured up to that moment...

I must mention, as a sidebar, that Zoe has long suffered from a recurring nightmare: a flashback to her childhood, and something having to do with a smoky hallway, an apartment building fire, and people trapped behind a locked door. (We do eventually get the details of this incident, not that said “explanation” is the slightest bit satisfying.)

Back in the real world, Frank is summoned by the university president (Amy Aquino), who reads him the riot act for violating the parameters of his original proposal, and dabbling with Things That Man Was Not Meant To Know. Moments later, Frank and Zoe’s lab is raided by a corporate stooge (an uncredited Ray Wise) whose Big Pharma client has just bought the company that awarded the initial research grant, and therefore now owns all the results.

And takes everything: chemicals, hard drives, lab notes. Presumably because Big Pharma is jazzed about the notion of bringing dead dogs back to life.

(It would appear that Aquino and Wise, both seasoned actors, visited the set for an hour each ... perhaps in an attempt to add some cred to this misbegotten turkey. As with everything else, their efforts failed.)

So, total catastrophe.

Ah, but Zoe has saved one sample of their precious formula. Determined to re-create their work, apparently to “prove” that they developed this miracle — hey, don’t look at me; none of this makes any sense — Frank and his team clandestinely return to their lab that evening. Alas, due to a freak electrical mishap, Zoe suffers a fatal shock.

You know what’s coming.

Steamrolling everybody else’s objections, Frank resolutely injects Zoe with the juice, and — hey, presto! — she comes back ... different. With all sorts of wonderful new skills: telekinesis, mind-reading and — here’s the whopper — the ability to put other people into her dreams. So, naturally, poor Eva immediately gets sucked into that smoke-filled, fire-laced hallway.

Elsewhere, Zoe starts behaving very, very badly.

But only PG-13 badly, which also is a puzzle. Since this film boastfully shares its pedigree with “the producers of The Purge and Sinister” — both of them laden with nastier, R-rated elements — fans undoubtedly will expect more of the same here. They’re in for a disappointment; all the yucko stuff in Lazarus is quite restrained. So there’s another strike: Even the gore-hounds will dismiss this puerile nonsense with contempt.

Instead, Gelb seems satisfied with endless variations of somebody jumping at the camera when flickering lights wink out and then back on: a minor jolt that might work the first time, but wears thin rapidly.

As for Gelb’s attempt to milk terror from the likes of storage lockers and e-cigarettes ... the less said, the better.

I should note that this is Gelb’s debut feature, following a series of shorts and documentaries, including 2011’s quite entertaining Jiro Dreams of Sushi. I respectfully suggest that Gelb refrain from tackling any more dramatic projects; he obviously can’t direct actors worth a damn.

The major problem, though, is that Dawson and Slater haven’t the faintest idea where to take their inane storyline. Instead, they adopt a kitchen-sink approach, apparently hoping that something will resonate: a bit of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley here, some Stephen King there, technobabble seasoning straight out of Star Trek, and some vague allusions to the torment of the damned in Hell (perhaps intended to align with the superficial nod to the biblical Lazarus).

I cannot imagine why the five key cast members — all with solid, B-level careers — signed on for this schlock; there’s no way this script ever could have seemed a reasonable gamble. Poor Wilde fares the worst, ultimately reduced to wandering the hallways with jet-black contact lenses and a malevolent grin.

I’ve long insisted that nobody sets out to make a bad movie: that no matter what the final result, at some point all concerned must’ve had faith in their efforts. Junk like this may force me to re-evaluate that belief.

The greatest irony comes from a bit of third-act dialogue, as the now-malevolent Zoe attempts to demean Eva by belittling her contribution to the project: “Some people are destined for greatness. Others just hold the camera.”

One must be careful, with such lines ... because it’s obvious that Gelb & Co. just held the camera.

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