Tag Archives: medical horror

Lazy Lazarus

The Lazarus Effect

by Hope Madden

Four years ago filmmaker David Gelb directed the lovely, layered, joyous documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. This weekend we see his newest effort, The Lazarus Effect. What the hell happened?

Gelb abandons novelty and nuance for a by-the-numbers Frankenstein horror. Medical researchers work on a cure for death. Big Pharm is looking to steal their ideas for nefarious gain. Think Splice.

The scientists test their process on animal subjects, but make the leap to human trials a tad prematurely when one of the team-Zoe (Olivia Wilde) – is electrocuted. Things do not go well. Think Pet Sematary.

The serum super-powers Zoe’s brain. Think Lucy.

But Zoe may have been brought back from hell, and may have brought some of hell back with her. Think Event Horizon. Or Flatliners.

It appears screenwriters Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater have seen enough movies to be able to cobble together plenty of stale ideas to fill 83 minutes, although you will swear the film runs two full hours.

Part of the problem is the blandness of the set. For most of the running time we’re trapped in the hospital’s sub-basement with the doomed scientists. This should create anxiety, develop claustrophobic dread, but the dull set and uninspired direction do little but breed tedium.

Gelb can generate tension now and again, but he doesn’t know how to deliver the payoff. The film is so paint-by-numbers – from the greedy chemical company to the dream sequence, from the dog to the unrequited love to the twist ending – there’s nary a surprise to be found.

Wilde and cast (Mark Duplass, Evan Peters, Sarah Bolger and Donald Glover) can’t bring depth to their characters, though Wilde does give it a shot. There’s more to Zoe than what’s on the page, but not nearly enough to keep the film interesting.

There are plenty of awful horror movies, and The Lazarus Effect is not one of them. It’s succinct, tidy, offers a jolt or two, and it’s held together workmanlike-fashion with enough logic and borrowed ideas to remain lucid for as long as it needs to. But horror also has some great films to offer, and this is certainly not one of those. It’s a disposable February flick and a genuine disappointment from Gelb.


Halloween Countdown, Day 24

American Mary (2012)

Twin sisters, Canadians and badasses Jen and Sylvia Soska have written and directed a smart, twisted tale of cosmetic surgery – both elective and involuntary.

Rex Reed said of American Mary, “The acting is uniformly dreadful. The level of incompetence in both writing and direction is a scream.”

Rex Reed is high. You should see American Mary.

Katharine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps) stars as med student Mary Mason, a bright and eerily dedicated future surgeon who’s having some trouble paying the bills. She falls in with an unusual crowd, develops some skills, and becomes a person you want to keep on your good side.

Isabelle is masterful, performing without judgment and creating a multi-dimensional central figure. As the film opens, Mary is a character on the verge. The Soska sisters deftly explore that moment, full of anxiety and thrill, where anything could happen. This being horror, though, it doesn’t all go quite as well as Mary originally hoped.

The Soskas’ screenplay is as savvy as they come, clean and unpretentious but informed by gender politics and changing paradigms. They also prove skilled at drawing strong performances across the board. Antonio Cupo, in particular, impresses as the unexpectedly layered yet certainly creepy strip club owner.

Were it not for all those amputations and mutilations, this wouldn’t be a horror film at all. It’s a bit like a noir turned inside out, where we share the point of view of the raven haired dame who’s nothin’ but trouble. It’s a unique and refreshing approach that  pays off.

The images are bright, crisp and classy and at the same time so very wrong – just like Mary. Like fellow Canadian David Cronenberg, the Soskas care not for traditional scares, preferring unsettling images and nightmarish circumstances. And though the film owes a debt to Cronenberg – particularly his magnificent corporeal nightmare Dead Ringers – it certainly carves out its own niche in the bodily horror genre.

The film is an accomplished effort from the relative newcomers. Stylish and fresh, smart and creepy, it’s an excellent addition to any Halloween viewing.

Halloween Countdown, Day 21

Eyes Without a Face (1960)

The only real flaw in this French classic is that at no point does Billy Idol ride a motorcycle through the rain into an obscurely Satanic ring of fire. Beyond that one obvious problem, Eyes Without a Face is a pretty great flick.

The circus music score that opens the film and shadows it throughout subtly works on your nerves as sort of a cross between a child’s toybox tune and an absurd joke. We first hear those freaky notes as a handsome woman nervously drives a tiny European car with someone in the backseat. Eventually she dumps the young passenger – nude except for a trench coat and oversized hat that obscures her face – into the river and drives away.

From this dialogue-free opening scene, with its sparkling black and white photography and immediate, mysterious tension, you realize that Eyes Without a Face is stylish in that effortlessly French way.

The formula behind Eyes Without a Face has been stolen and reformulated for dozens of lurid, low-brow exploitation films since 1960. In each, there is a mad doctor who sees his experiments as being of a higher order than the lowly lives they ruin; the doctor is assisted by a loyal, often non-traditionally attractive (some might say handsome) nurse; there are nubile young women who will soon be victimized, as well as a cellar full of the already victimized.

But somehow, in this originator of that particular line of horror, the plot works seamlessly.

An awful lot of that success lies in the performances. Pierre Brasseur, as the stoic surgeon torn by guilt and weighed down by insecurities about his particular genius, brings a believable, subtle egomania to the part seldom seen in a mad scientist role.

Alida Valli, in particular, makes all other “devoted beyond reason nurse helpmates” look ridiculous by comparison. She lets both devotion and guilt flavor her performance, allowing it to be surprisingly empathetic given her duties (to lure young victims and support their subsequent butchering).

Still, the power in the film is in the striking visuals that are the trademark of giant French filmmaker Georges Franju. His particular genius in this film gave us the elegantly haunting image of Dr. Genessier’s daughter Christiane (Edith Scob).

Christiane is the image of dainty innocence, a waif-like apparition hiding her monstrousness behind the most divinely spooky, blank mask. Her graceful, damaged presence haunts the entire film and elevates those final scenes to something wickedly sublime.