Science, Religion, and Horror — “The Lazarus Effect”

Lazarus Effect 1

by Gabriel Valdez

Horror movies are a little weird. We don’t always watch horror looking for good cinema, we watch it for effective scares. Some truly bad movies still have the ability to scare us.

The Lazarus Effect is very effective some of the time, but it’s interrupted by ferocious bouts of quirkiness. And not the good kind. Scientists are playing god by attempting to bring dead animals back to life. Inevitably, there’s an accidental death that forces our heroes to bring a human (Olivia Wilde) back to life instead. The only problem is that a few minutes of death here equals years and years in Hell. Also, Hell lends you superpowers for reasons nobody ever figures out.

There are some major issues in the shot choices and editing, which are both crucial in creating mood and rhythm for your scares to inhabit. Lazarus relies almost entirely on jump scares, where something jumps at a character from off-screen accompanied by a loud noise.

This means we can’t anticipate the scares, but we can predict them. Anticipation means we know they’re coming, we just can’t be sure of when. There’s a nervousness to anticipation. Often it happens when the audience sees something the characters can’t. Lazarus has no anticipation.

Prediction means we could time every scare’s arrival on a stopwatch. Predictable scares can still be frightening, but they don’t hold the same power in our psyche. They can make us jump, but they can’t lurk in the back of our minds and send chills up our spines. Lazarus can scare you, sure, but it won’t get inside your head.

Lazarus Effect 2

Wilde does make up for a lot of this. She is extraordinarily good in a role that requires her to play across the board – she can recite the technical babble behind her experiment like she’s on another episode of House, but there’s a later sequence in which she changes personalities depending on who’s in the room with her. She shines in these moments and gives us the only character who really feels like she belongs in that lab.

Unfortunately, and I hate to drag an actor out like this, Mark Duplass is awful. He plays the experiment’s co-leader and Wilde’s boyfriend. He’s been good in a lot of indie comedies, especially Safety Not Guaranteed, but he makes some very bad choices here. The interplay between Wilde and Duplass should create the dynamic of two scientists jousting over ideas (she believes in an afterlife, he doesn’t) and uncomfortably struggling to fit their philosophical disagreements into their more intimate relationship. Instead, it comes across as two actors hauling the quality of the movie in two very different directions. The rest of the cast – including comedian/rap artist Donald Glover – is charming, but isn’t the best fit for this film.

Lazarus is PG-13, rare for horror. There’s a hint of body horror and some trickles of blood but Lazarus uses some visual shortcuts to imply what you’ve seen in gorier horror movies. Honestly, I hardly noticed the absence – the best horror is built on psychology, not blood. It means that Lazarus relies more on its ideas, and these do become more frightening as we grasp the broader religious and scientific ideas at play.

Lazarus Effect glide

This creates a vicious cycle: a great horror idea gets you excited, but you’re disappointed by its failed execution. Wilde saves the moment through sheer acting willpower, and Duplass sabotages it by making all the wrong choices. This is saved by another great horror idea, but it’s executed badly and so on and so on.

It’s like a football game where whoever gets the ball last wins. Thankfully, we see Wilde more than Duplass, and the movie’s final twist adds a terrific motive to violence that earlier seemed a bit senseless. Home team wins.

Lazarus is a combination of great ideas, predictable yet effective jump scares, and a very out-of-place cast relying on Wilde as the only glue that holds it all together. We invented an award here recently called Most Thankless Role – it’s for actors who do great work in B-movies. I have a feeling Wilde’s going to contend this year.

The Lazarus Effect might only be a pond in the desert that is horror filmmaking right now, but that still makes it feel like an oasis worth visiting. It didn’t scare me as much as I would have liked, but its story felt rewarding.

If you’re looking for a better version of Lazarus, consider Flatliners, an often forgotten horror gem from 1990 that brought together Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, and Kiefer Sutherland.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does The Lazarus Effect have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Olivia Wilde plays the lead researcher Zoe and Sarah Bolger plays videographer Eva. There’s also a university president played by Amy Aquino and a little girl played by Emily Kelavos.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a woman?

Yes. Horror is one of the only genres to regularly pass the Bechdel Test with ease. Zoe and Eva talk to each other as often as any of the men do, and it’s always about science, religion, or the crazy horror shenanigans going on around them. They’re also the two most proactive characters in the whole movie.

There’s actually not a whole lot to say about it beyond this. Lazarus is cut to the bone as a movie – it’s only 83 minutes long – so there’s not a whole lot to analyze here. In terms of capability and agency, it presents a positive portrayal of women.

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