Scientists perform strange experiments in "The Lazarus Effect," a horror film whose title hints at the characters' goal: to bring the dead to life. They start by injecting animals with their so-called Lazarus serum, but the results are what you might call suboptimal. We know, of course, that it's only a matter of time before a human ends up on the laboratory table.
That's a perfectly good premise, variations of which worked well in "Flatliners," "Altered States" and "Brainstorm," to name just a few movies that looked to science to answer questions about the great beyond. "The Lazarus Effect" isn't as smart or as stylish as any of those. What it lacks in originality it makes up for with a capable cast and a few good jolts from fledgling director David Gelb (the documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi").
Olivia Wilde is Zoe, a scientist with nagging doubts about her creepy project, while a likable Mark Duplass plays Frank, her collaborator and fiancè. Both actors have earned a certain slacker cred in small-budget movies like "Your Sister's Sister" and "Drinking Buddies," and they're convincing here as hip, youngish researchers leading a small crew of bright college types. Evan Peters, who played Quicksilver in "X-Men: Days of Future Past," is the stoner genius Clay and rapper-actor Donald Glover plays Niko, a computer whiz. They're filmed by Eva, a budding documentarian played almost wordlessly -- with the occasional scream -- by Sarah Bolger.
Because this movie comes from Blumhouse Productions, the makers of "Paranormal Activity," "Sinister" and other quickie horror flicks, "The Lazarus Effect" has an identifiable sensibility: low-budget and youth-oriented. The effects are minimal (read: inexpensive), so your imagination has to do the heavy lifting. And when the ideas run out, which happens quickly, the movie goes into fallback Blumhouse mode: ghostly children, spooky dolls, black-eyed demons. That stuff is disappointing, especially since the screenwriters, Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater, worked so hard at the outset to establish at least a pseudoscientific basis for all the goings-on.
In the end, "The Lazarus Effect" feels pretty weak, but it never really promised to be anything more. Running at 83 minutes, it also has the good sense not to outstay its welcome.