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Justin Lubin, Relativity Media
Mark Duplass, left, Donald Glover, Evan Peters and Sarah Bolger star in Relativity Media's "The Lazarus Effect.”

Sometimes, the road to mediocrity is paved with good intentions.

“The Lazarus Effect” starts with an interesting idea, boasts an impressive cast and offers some creepy moments, but reliance on overused horror conventions keeps director David Gelb’s effort from rising above midseason filler.

If there’s one reason to see “The Lazarus Effect,” it is the gripping performance of Olivia Wilde. She plays Zoe, a scientist with a religious foundation and a mysterious past. She and her fiancé, Frank (Mark Duplass), have developed a serum that is supposed to bring deceased patients back to the wonderful world of the living. Early on, it works on a dog. Later, after a tragic lab accident, it works on Zoe.

The only other people who know about Frank and Zoe’s Frankenstein-like activities are their other team members: Clay (Evan Peters), Niko (Donald Glover) and Eva (Sarah Bolger), the cute young documentary filmmaker they brought on to archive their breakthrough work.

Thankfully, Gelb only gives us periodic point-of-view shots from Eva’s camera, sparing the audience the trendy headaches of the modern “found footage” genre. Unthankfully, the director seems to feel that jump-scares are the only consistent way to get an audience reaction.

Once Zoe gets back, things start getting testy. Half the time she seems to be suffering from post-traumatic stress; the other half of the time it seems like someone else is flipping the switches in her brain. Frank’s love for Zoe inspired him to bring her back, but lovebirds are supposed to finish each other’s sentences, not recite their thoughts to them verbatim.

“The Lazarus Effect” wants to wrestle with the relationship between religion and science. Is the serum calling the shots in Zoe’s brain, or did it really open the gates of the afterlife?

You have to allow for a bit of flexibility whenever you’re watching a film about the supernatural, but the plot holes in “The Lazarus Effect” are too grounded in reality. The team feels way too nonchalant about raising a dog from the dead. Frank and Zoe take him home right away as if they just swung by Petco on the way home from the office. And when Zoe starts pulling her mind-reading, teleporting and projecting other people into her childhood nightmares tricks, the team is a bit slow to realize that they’ve stepped in some serious supernatural trouble.

There’s a big difference between the tension built by a good story and the tension you feel when you know a movie is getting ready to jump out at you. They aren’t the same thing. The sad part of “The Lazarus Effect” is that it didn’t need all of the routine tricks.

Wilde uses her unique looks to full effect, veering from tormented victim to pseudo-demonic possession frequently and convincingly. But in spite of their resumes, the rest of the cast doesn’t have much to do other than act like slasher movie fodder. Glover especially feels wasted, acting out a role his character in TV’s “Community” might have laughed at on a late-night video binge.

“The Lazarus Effect” is a scary movie that pokes around with some big questions, but never really goes far enough to say anything. Still, if the goal was a movie that would offer a few simple frights, then the effort was a success.

Comment on this story

It’s difficult to hold high expectations for a horror movie that’s hitting the big screen at the end of February, but can you justify a full-price ticket to see movie tricks so old that even Lazarus thinks they’re old hat?

“The Lazarus Effect” is rated PG-13 for some intense, frightening sequences, scenes of gore and violence, and profanity.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.