Tag Archives: House

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

Should You Watch? ‘Resurrection’

RESURRECTION
The Returned”
“Unearth”

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I’m going to answer this one up front. Should you watch? Yes. Absolutely, unequivocally yes. Job done? Great. Let me count the reasons.

#1: The Purpose

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Resurrection is a fantasy drama based off a simple concept. What if the dead started coming back to life? We’re not in zombie territory here. The show opens with a little boy, Jacob, waking up in a field in China, not knowing where he was or how he got there. In Resurrection, the dead simply walk back into our lives just as they were the day they left us. They may resurrect on the other side of the world and we may be older by years, but they haven’t sensed the time pass that we have, and they’re just as disoriented by what’s happened as we are.

How do you react? How do they cope? Can you pick up where you left off? Do you trust that they are who they say they are, or do you still question even when DNA tests and interviews all confirm the impossible? Is it a miracle or something more sinister?

From the first moment, the show has a sense of purpose, of where it’s going. Its mysteries make it feel momentarily like a Lost-alike, while its setup – that of an ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) agent investigating an increasingly odd situation in a closeted small town – is reminiscent of the brilliant Twin Peaks. The way its proceduralism bounces off the town’s denizens and the stabilizing presence of Omar Epps can’t help but remind you of House, M.D., too.

#2: Epps, Kelley, & Utopian Sci-Fi

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Epps plays J. Martin Bellamy. He serves as an analogue for audiences, a trustworthy way to access the plot. Epps’s calm presence may have bounced him out as a movie star – Hollywood still doesn’t trust African-Americans to act as narrative guides – but he’s made for TV. The more reliable the anchor, the more bizarreness can storm the plot he’s holding down, and Epps oozes the kind of reliability that we look for in many supernatural and sci-fi shows.

Dr. Maggie Langston (Devin Kelley) is the little boy Jacob’s cousin. She acts as Martin’s eyes and ears in town. Kelley has the same strong, striking feel that Olivia Wilde did on House, though with a better behaved character. This is no mistake. It makes the House comparison feel all the more natural. Since Epps played the only sane character on that medical drama, it’s easier for viewers to give Epps even more benefit of the doubt. It’s a shortcut into solidifying the audience’s reliance on Epps and to trusting a pretty quick friendship between Martin and Maggie – this is Smart-as-Hell Casting 101.

It also means that whichever way they go with Martin – keeping him as our anchor or pulling the rug out from under us – they’ve very quickly earned the kind of equity in the character that other shows take a season to develop.

Leaving my mixing of metaphors behind, such reliable protagonists are not always the stuff from which TV legends are made. We love our bad boys and feisty girls because we want to tune in every week to see if they get fixed – look no further than the approach Believe, the rest of House, or Lost itself took. In fact, when it comes to sci-fi, you can pretty accurately judge whether something is forward-looking utopian or near-future dystopian by the protagonist – is he or she already redeemed or seemingly irredeemable? Resurrection uses Epps and Kelley as much as the writing itself to communicate a central hope and comfort in the face of the unknown.

#3: The Casting

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Frances Fisher and Kurtwood Smith play Henry and Lucille Langston, Jacob’s parents. As the first family experiencing someone who has returned – Jacob died 32 years ago – they become pariahs in their community. Lucille picks up right where she left off three decades back, thankful for the second chance. It’s clear she never fully dealt with Jacob’s death. Henry made peace with it however, and fell in love with the memory of his dead son. To him, loving this new Jacob represents a betrayal of the old one.

Most shows of this type rush ahead with the plot, but Resurrection doesn’t feel the need to go quite as fast. It’s genuinely interested in its characters, and takes the time to show them thinking and reflecting in quiet, non-dramatic ways. It’s a unique approach – as good as it was, Lost changed the game for mystery box TV shows. They were suddenly packed with action, plot, and discovery. If characters got emotional, it was about love interests and betrayals of trust, and not about how hard life is already without being stuck on an island to die or facing your dead son of 32 years. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but it’s nice to see a show with a central supernatural mystery that finds time for its characters to process emotions like adults, rather than constantly acting out.

Fisher’s had guest roles on just about everything, and Smith played the dad on That 70’s Show. You’ll be surprised by Smith. Bryan Cranston’s shift from just being the goofy dad on Malcolm in the Middle to becoming a ruthless drug kingpin on Breaking Bad ought to show you that many of those thankless, pigeonholed comedy roles are the most difficult and overlooked on TV. If you can communicate emotion when playing a one-lining stereotype, you can certainly communicate it once you get your shot at a drama. Fisher and Smith both get their turns to be heartbreaking – she somehow does in a look what some actors can’t do in their entire lives – and the show is certainly willing to trust its actors more than most do. Landon Giminez also deserves credit as Jacob. He’s more interesting and far less cloying than most child actors on TV.

Resurrection cleverly gives us characters of all types – Martin is a federal official, albeit a humane one. It’s mentioned in passing that Henry was an architect. Maggie’s a doctor. Jacob’s uncle (Maggie’s father) is Sheriff Fred Langston (Matt Craven). Of course, he doesn’t like Martin. Jacob’s best friend growing up, Tom (Mark Hildreth), is now the town’s pastor. While a bit obvious, it’s a smart way of letting the show explore how people who follow different paths and beliefs react to an event that seems miraculous. The time the show takes with its characters and the leeway it gives its actors does a lot to quickly evolve them from archetype to fleshed-out, unique individuals.

This is, simply put, the best job of casting on television right now. Casting director Deborah Aquila, who typically casts moderately-budgeted (but superstar-laden) action movies like the Underworld series, Red, and The Expendables, has recently moved into TV with this and the upcoming Black Box. She deserves a lot of credit for her work here.

#4: The Style, The Style, The Style

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Resurrection drips in elegance, and I don’t mean ballgowns and tuxedos. Arcadia, Missouri evokes the feelings of sunrise and sunset, of those brief hours when we let our guard down and get home from work or school and daydream the fantasy of how well we’ll spend the little free time we have. It’s hopeful and reflective. It understands the calm and quiet obsessions of American suburbia, even how nature plays into the repeated architecture as relief. It hints at the magic hour that turns those afternoon fantasies from hopeful to threatening.

This is smartly done sci-fi soap drama. It knows what it wants us to feel, but at the same time it feels like a curious creation that’s genuinely invested in mining for something deeper. It occasionally borders on schmaltzy, but dramas dream of doing schmaltz this effective.

A lot of shows feel episodic because the tone changes from one director to the next, from one writer to the next. There’s a clear purpose and a guiding hand to this show’s priorities. It carries within it the possibility to overwhelm at a moment’s notice, to make you catch a lump in your throat that lasts an entire commercial break, to make you recatch that lump on some completely other day when you briefly remember some passing detail, some moment of quiet shared with a character struggling to process life. Resurrection is exciting in its ideas, genuine in its emotion, and it puts its actors first and foremost – even before the show’s central mystery – in a way TV typically doesn’t. It’s a rare combination.

Should You Watch?

Without a doubt, yes.

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Resurrection airs on ABC Sundays 9 p.m. Eastern, 8 p.m. Central. You can watch it on Hulu here, or on ABC’s site here, as well as other streaming platforms.