It’s easy to be disillusioned by bland, scare-free horror films like The Lazarus Effect. Of course, not every horror film makes Ouija look like The Exorcist, but perhaps we can use this as a learning exercise. Rather than cursing the darkness, let’s light a little candle and look at “Three Things We Can Learn from The Lazarus Effect.”
1.) Bringing things back from the dead is no big thing.
Most horror films exist in the ‘real world’ for the express purpose of scaring us with supernatural or unusual phenomena. Since dealing with serial killers or zombies isn’t an everyday occurrence for most folks, the prospect of suddenly facing one is disconcerting. Apparently, this shock factor doesn’t extend to the realm of resurrection, however.
The Lazarus Effect treats re-animation like a walk in the park. When two biomedical researchers, Frank (Mark Duplass) and his fiancée Zoe (Olivia Wilde), concoct a secret sauce that brings Rocky the Dog back from the dead, it’s largely regarded as a formality. Even when an MRI reveals elevated levels of aggression-fueling secret sauce still floating around in Rocky’s brain, these scientists are perfectly comfortable taking him home for the night. He’s like a new pet!
And really, who can blame them for feeling safe? The only ill-effects Rocky appears to suffer from his date with death is a loss of appetite and the uncanny ability to snarl on command. Sure, he’s a little off—“That dog isn’t right!”—but there’s certainly nothing to dissuade you from say… replicating the experiment on humans. Why did we even see the process of discovering the secret sauce if it was going to be so easy and horror-free? It’s as if the filmmakers were actively trying to avoid anything scary or unpleasant.
2.) Increased neural capacity in humans opens a gateway straight to Hell… maybe.
Let’s say your fiancée accidentally gets electrocuted and you want to try out the magic go-go juice on her brain. What’s the worst that could happen? Something utterly ridiculous, apparently, as her brain expands far beyond normal human capacity. “There’s a reason why evolution takes a long time,” someone sagely observes after Zoe’s eyes turn to liquid shit and she starts moving pens with her mind. She floats around, slams people into things, and exhibits behaviors unbecoming a respected lady scientist. Think Lucy in Hell.
Only, we’re never really sure if Zoe is in Hell.
Earlier, when the research team is blithely discussing issues that most people actively avoid, they stumble upon the central conceit of The Lazarus Effect: Second chances are bullshit. At least, that seems to be the theme, though director David Gelb isn’t terribly concerned about the big picture. Being a pragmatic scientist, Frank explains that our brain chemicals spike when we die in order to “give us a buzz” that eases our passing. Because Zoe has to present the religious counterpoint, she theorizes that the chemical buzz actually facilitates our passage into the afterlife; a glorified bouncer at Club Heaven & Hell, if you will.
We also learn that Zoe witnessed a fatal fire as a child that still haunts her nightmares. After she’s resurrected and her nightmares become a little too real, Zoe theorizes that Hell is your worst day lived on a loop for all eternity. That’s interesting, in theory, but we’re never exactly sure where Zoe’s nightmares are taking place. Are they in her mind? Is she in Hell already? Is she at the doorway to Hell but refuses to enter? Is she a demon? Is her new super-brain altering time and space so she can share the delightful experience with her friends?
Luckily, writers Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater keep everything a jumbled mess so we never truly understand what the danger level is. All we really know is that using more than 10% of your brain may spin you and everyone you know into a living hell. It’s probably safer just to stay stupid.
3.) Horror geometry made simple!
Just as Pythagoras has his theorem, horror has its own visual geometry. Once you establish this geometry, you can subvert audience expectations to throw things off- kilter, thereby creating what we like to call “scary shit.”
Typically, this involves a series of shots in which a character investigates a puzzling noise or searches for a creepy critter. We focus on a specific area where we think the danger lies, usually behind or beneath a physical object. We hold our breath and wait for something to jump out at us but… it never does. There is nothing hiding under the bed or lurking behind the door. We get a close-up of our relieved hero as he slowly turns and… the beastie appears behind him! Add an excruciatingly loud noise and presto! You have a classic “jump scare.” Popular for decades, the jump scare is the cinematic equivalent of a game of “Peekaboo.”
By establishing and then disrupting this geometry, a capable director can manipulate the audience into a false sense of security. Or, as David Gelb demonstrates in The Lazarus Effect, he can simply repeat this series of shots over and over and over again until the audience successfully anticipates every possible scare. Think of Gelb as a friendly mathematics professor who wants to demonstrate exactly how jump scares are constructed. He repeats the lesson several times to ensure your mastery of the technique. Some people pay thousands of dollars to learn this lesson at the university, but you can get it for only $20. What a public service!
Of course, the assertion that you can learn 3 things while watching The Lazarus Effect is a gross exaggeration. There’s actually nothing to be learned from it. Avoid it like the unimaginative, jump scare machine that it is. The last thing we need is this abomination rising from the dead for a sequel.