Horror movie impresario Jason Blum has built an empire producing tightly knit tales of terror bolstered by inventive auteurs and compelling performers. He's brought us the “Insidious,” “Purge” and “Paranormal Activity” series, and now he's introduced a modern-day “Frankenstein” with “The Lazarus Effect,” a shrewd thriller that's as visually striking as it is scary.
Olivia Wilde leads this science-gone-awry tale as Zoe, a medical student who's working on the Lazarus Serum intended to resurrect the dead. When a lab accident cuts her life short, Zoe's research partner/fiancé Frank (Mark Duplass) hastily employs their unstable discovery to bring her back. Unfortunately for Frank and the rest of his team (Donald Glover, Evan Peters and Sarah Bolger), Zoe comes back wrong.
The premise is one that could easily lend itself to schlocky late-night horror. However, “The Lazarus Effect” is actually elegant in its tension and terror, thanks to director David Gelb, who rejects garish gore in favor of enveloping dread and choking tension. Previously acclaimed for his gorgeous and engrossing documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” Gelb brings a marvelous eye for visuals and character. Painted in cool colors and thoughtful lighting, the film is a slickly gorgeous, scene by scene. And like the horror classics of the 1970s (think “Carrie” or “The Exorcist”), “The Lazarus Effect” takes pains to establish the inner lives of its heroes before morphing their familiar surroundings into a hellish cage.
This is where the cast proves crucial. Too often, horror filmmakers bring in barely developed characters solely to have more meat for the grinder. But the script by Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slate is careful to make every character count.
Frank (Duplass) is the leader blinded by ambition, and often thwarted by the tunnel vision that ambition locks in. Basically, it's a variant on the arrogant jerk Duplass has made his signature, and he sells it well. As the loud-mouthed stoner of the group, Peters' energy feels a little oversized outside “American Horror Story,” but it's a welcomed break from his established niche of sullen loner. And when things go wrong for the team, it's the contagious panic of newcomer/student documentarian Eva (Bolger) that binds us to their fear and quest for survival.
But the standouts are undoubtedly Glover and Wilde. As Niko, Glover plays the sensitive lab tech who not-so-secretly pines for Zoe. Much of what I've watched of Glover has been comedy, so it was refreshing to see him so subtle and still so affecting. His supporting role here isn’t much to chew on, but he made it mesmerizing, urging me to write in my notebook, "Donald Glover needs to be in more things.” (“Spider-Man” or whatever. Just more things. Now, please.)
At the end of the day, however, this movie belongs to Wilde. She's not only its hero, but also its monster. Gelb delicately sets up this scientist who’s driven by her religious faith and a buried desire for redemption. We see into her head and into her home, which both harbor ominous signs of trouble to come, making the mundane seem menacing. Wilde has the help of disturbing FX makeup and masterful lighting -- from slinky shadows to anxiety-inducing flickering -- to add to her sense of threat. But most of the transformation from good Zoe to evil Zoe is all within the sharp shift in her physicality, the sly twitches of her face and cruel flashes that light her eyes. It's rare that I watch a horror movie nowadays and think, "I want more of that villain." But I'd buy a ticket for “The Lazarus Effect 2” tomorrow.
Ultimately, I adored “The Lazarus Effect.” Admittedly, its third act gets a bit wonky and it stumbles into tiresome tropes (jump-scare setups, predictable kill order). However, Geld's artful approach to horror is exhilarating and deeply disturbing. His dedication to character building forces us to engage with its heroes and their paranormal peril. From there, he masterfully builds tension by what he leaves out of frame, and a soundscape that teases a world laced with unknown possibilities of danger and terror. By no means is “The Lazarus Effect” a flashy horror flick. It's better than that: It’s unique, artfully frightening and superbly chilling.
”The Lazarus Effect” opens today nationwide.