Mad scientists have existed since the beginning of cinema, and The Lazarus Effect has zero problem borrowing from earlier films. It also snatches crumbs from The Exorcist and Paranormal Activity, among others. But! It's got an unusually good cast, fast pacing, and some decent frights.
Minor spoilers follow.
The obvious comparison here is Joel Schumacher's Flatliners — both films feature photogenic young doctors who are obsessed with what happens after we die, both with disastrous results. Here, the medical team is headed up by Zoe (Olivia Wilde) and Frank (Mark Duplass), a longtime couple whose engagement was postponed when they got a grant for their hush-hush research at pointedly Catholic institution, "St. Paternus University." Zoe is also a Catholic, complete with cross pendant 'round her neck, but she ain't beatific; despite her exhausting hours toiling in the lab, she's regularly awakened by a horrific nightmare that echoes a traumatic event she experienced in her childhood. Hmm .. wonder if that'll come back to haunt her before the end of act three?
Anyway, Zoe's spiritual leanings ("If we're going to be asking big questions, we have to be ready for big answers!") are important because she and strictly science-minded Frank disagree on what happens at the moment life leaves the body, which happens to be a key component of their research (so top-secret they conduct experiments in the school's sub-basement; this becomes important later when OMG SUPERNATURAL INSANITY IS UNDERWAY AND WE'RE TRAPPED UNDERGROUND). That said, they do allow an eager student with a camera, Eva (Once Upon a Time's Sarah Bolger), into their lair, allowing her to film the rather unusual work they do with colleagues Clay (American Horror Story's Evan Peters) and Niko (Community's Donald Glover).
Fortunately, this doesn't mean The Lazarus Effect becomes a shaky-cam found-footage drama; if anything, we see more surveillance-camera footage than anything else.
Actual scientists, if any dare view this film, will likely guffaw at Frank's explanation of how the team's "Lazarus Serum" (h/t the Bible) works its Herbert West-like reanimating magic. Fortunately, he rushes through it for all the civilians in the audience, since all that really matters is the last step, which involves a theatrical flip-switching that would make Victor Frankenstein shiver with delight.
What's the purpose of this weird science? Ostensibly, to allow doctors to revive dead patients "to give everyone that second chance they deserve." (That's another heavy bit of foreshadowing; if you think "second chances" won't become an important theme as the action progresses, The Lazarus Effect might be the first movie you've ever seen.)
Anyway, after years of zappin' frozen dogs unsuccessfully, one is coaxed from the beyond, and there is much rejoicing.
But it's soon clear that scruffy Rocky isn't well; his tweaked canine brain is exhibiting strange activity, and his behavior is worrisome. First, he creeps onto a sleeping Zoe's bed and looms over her à la Paranormal Activity (viewable, like many of the film's more dramatic scenes, in its trailer below), and particularly after the scene in which he goes cuckoo in the lab kitchen, extracting snacks from shelves alarmingly out of snout-and-paw reach. "What if we ripped him out of doggie heaven?" the scientists wonder, leaving unverbalized the other part of that question... because who believes in doggie hell?
The team's guarded euphoria over the successful revival of their canine subject is cut short by a two major, likely connected, events: the intrusion of an evil pharmaceutical company that's been secretly monitoring their research with dollar signs in its eyes... not a huge surprise, given the amount of security cameras scattered throughout this supposedly clandestine lab... and the cutting disapproval of the college dean, who's just found out what's really going on in the basement: "You are playing God with a bunch of dead animals!" Party's over, kids, and for five minutes The Lazarus Effect turns into a story about scientists on the verge of being robbed of credit for their work, and are determined to "take back what's ours!"
The crew decides they need to replicate the experiment to protect their reputations, and the ticking-clock pressure of getting it done before Big Drugs R Us shuts them down leads to the incident that shoves The Lazarus Effect into full-on horror movie turf. Again, the trailer is happy to tell you that when Zoe gets electrocuted in the name of science, the team decides to revive her, despite having no idea what it'll do to her. It's an interesting moment for the audience: if you saw a loved one die before you, wouldn't you bring her back from the dead if you had the means?
Emotionally, it'd be hard to resist. But The Lazarus Effect offers a strong argument against mucking around with the natural order of things, particularly when the serum starts turning Zoe into a more haunted version of ScarJo's chemically-altered superhuman character in Lucy, with a dash of Carrie White, and accessorized by the trendy demon trope du jour: eyes that go all-black when she's being particularly evil.
Director David Gelb strides onto genre turf from, oddly, foodie documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a well-received entry that probably helped him secure the above-average cast we see here. His directing style is nothing remarkable, however; though The Lazarus Effect makes an effort to pose the "big questions" Zoe references in the film's first half, once the monster manifests herself, the story becomes mostly about confined spaces, dark corridors, flashlights, and jump scares (plus a surprisingly strong anti-electronic cigarette message, for what it's worth).
Though Duplass gets a few meaty scenes, he and everyone else are mostly here to react to Wilde's transformation from a harried doctor who resembles a J. Crew model to ghostly wight given to occasional moments of clarity in which she makes spooky pronouncements like "That's what hell is! The worst moment of your life over and over!" (Remember that recurring nightmare she was having? Yep. Back and forth forever and ever.) No doubt Wilde, whose previous foray into medical horror was organ-snatching thriller Turistas, had a jolly time playing this unstable waif, whose ability to wield horrific violence via newly acquired psychic powers is made even creepier by her talent for giving top-notch Evil Resting Bitchface (see photo at the top of this review).
Ultimately, The Lazarus Effect manages to cram quite a lot of thematic elements into its slender running time by keeping everything else very simple; most of the action takes place in the lab's small network of rooms, and its small cast only gets smaller the angrier Zoe becomes. It also offers a twist ending that you might not see coming, which in itself is cause for celebration. And while it may play with being profound in its establishing scenes, its main goal is to entertain those who love being scared. Hell, it may be overly familiar, but that creepy black-eyed look never ceases to startle.