The Lazarus Effect is the latest horror offering from Blumhouse Productions, the independent company that has specialized in the genre for years with movies like the Paranormal Activity series, Insidious, Sinister, Oculus, Ouija and many more. Like the company’s dystopian hit The Purge, The Lazarus Effect mixes a little sci-fi into the supernatural proceedings, telling a Frankenstein/Flatliners-type tale of a team of researchers who stumble upon a way to bring the dead back to life. But when one of their own is killed and resurrected, something else comes back as well.
The movie stars Mark Duplass (Togetherness), Olivia Wilde (Her), Donald Glover (Community) and Evan Peters (X-Men: Days of Future Past) and was directed by David Gelb, best known for his arthouse debut, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Like many directors who work with Blumhouse, Gelb is still a relative newcomer. But the company has also collaborated with established filmmakers like James Wan and Scott Derrickson, and is taking its biggest step in that direction this year by working with M. Night Shyamalan on his upcoming film, The Visit.
That’s not the only way in which Blumhouse (which has a first-look deal with Universal) is branching out: on tap for the future is a film based on Jem and the Holograms, a Western from indie horror auteur Ti West called In a Valley of Violence, and a “family horror film” written by Robert Ben Garant (Jessabelle) and directed by Harald Zwart (The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones). It may also surprise some people to know that Blumhouse was behind last year’s acclaimed, triple Oscar winner Whiplash. That’s where we start in our interview with Blumhouse president Jason Blum, before moving onto The Lazarus Effect, M. Night Shyamalan and the state of the Paranormal and Purge franchises.
Den of Geek: Congratulations is being an Oscar nominee (Whiplash was nominated for Best Picture).
Jason Blum: This is really my first one and it’s really cool.
Whiplash is kind of the little movie that could in a way.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was definitely an underdog. No one ever thought, including me by the way, no one ever thought we would get this far with it. So I’m really — it was an awesome, awesome year. Awesome run with that movie.
What appealed to you about The Lazarus Effect? You get so many projects that pass over your desk I’m sure.
We do a ton of supernatural horror so although there is kind of a supernatural element to this, this is much more grounded. I forget who said Flatliners, but that was the movie we talked about a lot when we were developing it. And we haven’t seen a movie like that for a while. So that’s what I liked about the movie. Usually that’s what I look for first, like does it feel different? Does it feel fresh? And this felt that way to me because most of what we get is supernatural so this was less of that and that was the first thing that I kind of identified and liked about the script.
In a way it made me think of the old Outer Limits, the black and white ones, where they had these science fiction stories but done in these Gothic haunted house settings. This felt like a modern descendent of that.
Yeah. And also like, you know, talking about creation or the afterlife. Is there an afterlife? Is there not an afterlife? Kind of tying religion into it. But those were a lot of the things that we talked about when we were developing the script for sure.
[Related: The Lazarus Effect review]
The religion versus science debate is the essence of a lot of great horror.
For sure. I think that’s the whole thing. I think that, to me, makes horror believable, because obviously there are believers and non-believers and if you kind of show that and show that conversation it allows you to be more scary…if you engage people in that debate, it makes movies scarier.
Were there any particular challenges to this one on the production end?
There wasn’t. The biggest challenge to this was really distribution. We made this movie and I really was happy with how it came out, all of us were. And it was very touch and go if the movie was going to come out or not. So that was kind of the hardest thing. But Relativity got behind it and we figured it out. But that was the trickiest thing on this movie by far for me.
Does it surprise you sometimes, what clicks with a distributor or what doesn’t?
It shocks me every time. We make a lot of movies that I don’t think merit a wide release. We have this label called Tilt and we have the movies come out on that and that’s fine. But it shocks me when, having done this a few times, when I really believe a movie should get a wide release and I struggle to get it released. That does surprise me. It still surprises me.
It’s interesting that you said at last night’s screening and then again at the press conference today that you weren’t convinced about David directing this and you’ve kind of made a point of saying that you really turned around on that.
Because it’s true. We came onto the script after he was attached and I was definitely very skeptical about him directing the movie. And there was another producer on the movie, a guy named Matt Kaplan who has a deal with us. And he really like stuck his neck out for the guy, you know. He really, really advocated and I didn’t say yes but I didn’t say no. I said let’s see how it goes. I was never comfortable with David until we were looking at dailies. But what made me say, “Okay, let’s do it with him,” is after he met with Mark and after he met with Olivia. Both those people wanted to do the movie and I thought, “Okay.” Because that’s a big deal. Those guys have done a ton of movies so for them to a) do a horror movie and b) with essentially a first-time director — nine times out of ten they would come out of that meeting and be like, “Uh, it was good but I don’t think I’m going to do it.” But they wanted to do the movie and that gave me the confidence to say you know, let’s give David a shot.
A lot of directors either get their start with Blumhouse or are sort of flying below the radar before they work with you, but now you’re working with M. Night Shyamalan. So now you’re working with a guy who not only is a very big name but a name that is kind of divisive in some ways. What’s that experience been like?
Well I’ve had a great time working with him. He’s really passionate and I find that infectious. When someone is really into what they’re doing I love that because I love what I do and so I really feel a kinship with him on that level. You know, James Wan had done Saw but then he had done two movies that hadn’t worked before he did Insidious. Some people loved him and some people didn’t. You can see that with Night and I think Hollywood is not fair to people in those positions. I mean he’s made some of the most iconic movies ever and those movies didn’t come out of thin air. They came out of his brain. So I prefer to work with those people. Actually I prefer to work with those people than like the super-hot director who’s had three hits in a row and really doesn’t want to listen to anything. It’s nice, you know. He feels much more collaborative and it feels very collaborative with him. And we worked a lot on the movie. I saw a rough cut of the movie and the movie that I saw and the movie that it is now are two very different movies and he was very collaborative in that process.
It’s a horror movie?
Yeah. A thriller. It’s a thriller. It’s not a horror movie, it’s a thriller but it’s scary. It’s super scary. It’s actually really funny too. It’s a lot like Paranormal Activity 3. I don’t know if you remember but there was a lot of fun in that one. And so Night’s movie is a scary thriller but it’s a fun scary thriller. There’s a lot of fun in it. It’s not just a dark journey, which is one of the things I like about it.
Where does Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension stand and what’s been the process with that? The release date has changed several times.
You’re right. It was October (2013) to March (2015) and now it’s the following October. We’re tinkering with the movie like we’ve tinkered with all the other movies. Shooting, writing, shooting, writing, cutting. Found footage movies are actually much harder to make well. An effective found footage movie is much harder to make than an effective traditionally shot movie. A crappy one is much easier to make, because you take your camera and you shoot the scene and you’re done. But to make it effective they’re actually much trickier. When people come to me with an idea and they say, “We can do it found footage or traditional,” I always say to do it traditionally.
Where are things at with The Purge 3?
We’re not in production but we’re working on it. We have an idea, we have a script that we’re working on and it’ll be out July 2016. And I hope James (DeMonaco, writer/director of the first two) is going to direct it. He hasn’t declared yet but I’m hoping that he will. He’s writing it. It’s an awesome idea. I’m super psyched about it.
You also just announced that you’re doing a family horror film. Is that an oxymoron?
No it’s not. I’m trying to think of a good comparison for that. It’ll be fun, scary, like Halloween for little kids. It’s like Home Alone. I would think that would qualify as like scary fun, right, for young kids. Something like that. I’m psyched. The way we’re branching out with the company is instead of being like most producers, when they have success, and striving to make more expensive movies — I don’t want to do. The heart and soul of the business will be scary movies but every so often there’s a Jem and the Holograms or the western we did with Ti West or we’ll try low budget movies in other genres — but ones that still make sense that they come from a scary movie company.
The Lazarus Effect is in theaters on Friday (February 27).