Hell hath no fury like a woman brought back from the dead. Especially if she’s subjected to a repetitious pastiche of half-baked and derivative ideas like those in “The Lazarus Effect.”
Nonetheless, there are lessons to be learned from this minimalist thriller. The first is that scaring people requires more than just tossing furniture around, turning the lights off and on, and basically sneaking up from behind and shouting “Boo!” On the more philosophical side, however, the film teaches us a) don’t try to fool Mother Nature, and b) don’t play with matches.
I’ll say no more about the matches to avoid spoilers. As for fooling Mother Nature, Frank (Mark Duplass), an overreaching scientist, has put together some gizmos that make the lab equipment in the 1931 “Frankenstein” look like the Hadron Collider for his research into the nature of mortality. He has isolated a chemical called DMT, which saturates the brain in extremis and might be the cause of the white light and feelings of bliss that occur in some near-death experiences. Perhaps if this substance was injected into a dead brain, followed by the traditional zap of electricity, it might bring it back to life?
His more religiously inclined fiancee Zoe (Olivia Wilde) warns that DMT might be a gateway drug — i.e., the gateway to heaven — and wonders if maybe they shouldn’t tamper with it. Whatever. The cool thing is that the equipment is so basic it looks like you could do this in your basement.
First up is Rocky, a “true underdog” as Frank puts it (Duplass brings an irresistible goofiness to the role). And yes, someone does quote the inevitable line “It’s alive!” Unfortunately, it is only after Rocky has risen that they realize they should have used a smaller dog.
Here’s another tip: [spoiler!] If you’re going to pull the lever on a high voltage breaker box, remove your engagement ring first. As could be expected, Zoe (her name means life, after all) ends up lying on the gurney with Frank trying to bring her back.
From this point on, it seems as though the director David Gelb (whose previous film was the 2011 documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” another movie about fun with dead things) was trying to decide if he wanted to go in the zombie direction, or maybe throw in some more of “The Exorcist” (1973) or “The Shining” (1980) or even elements from last year’s “Lucy.” Whatever ideas he discarded, they probably weren’t any worse than what he ended up with.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.