The Autopsy of Jane Doe, 2016.
Directed by André Øvredal.
Starring Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch, Ophelia Lovibond, Michael McElhatton, Olwen Catherine Kelly, and Jane Perry.
A family coroner business experiences some strange goings-on when a mysterious corpse is brought in for examination.
Having done the rounds on the festival circuit last year, The Autopsy of Jane Doe finally hits DVD and Blu-ray and in a year that has brought us a few horror titles – The Void, Beyond the Gates and The Love Witch to name but three – that have looked back to days gone by for inspiration it seems that the trend shows no sign of stopping. In fact, it looks to be getting stronger as The Autopsy of Jane Doe hits a few familiar beats in the right kind of way (i.e. without feeling hackneyed) and also sets up a strong story with two outstanding lead performances.
Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox – Manhunter/X2) and his son Austin (Emile Hirsch – Killer Joe) work together as coroners in the morgue set underneath their house. Just as they are packing up for the day the local sheriff brings in the corpse of a young woman that was discovered at a crime scene the police are struggling to solve. With no obvious marks or way of identification, the sheriff needs a quick answer as to how the woman died and so leaves the body with the coroners who have to work quickly to try and solve the mystery. But as the night goes on there are no obvious answers as to how the young woman died despite an internal investigation revealing some horrific injuries and the likelihood she was tortured. Then the power to the underground lab goes out and things start to get even stranger…
Aside from the opening crime scene where the police find Jane Doe’s body the rest of the film takes place in the underground morgue so we have the isolated location. Add to that a setting rife with a morbid atmosphere and the potential for bloodshed, and then follow that up with two lead characters who have no insight into the events that led up to that point or any clue as to what is going on and you have the basic settings of a classic haunted house story, albeit one not actually set in a house but underneath one. Also key is the fact that the audience also have no idea what is going on and so we are discovering the answers to the mystery along with Tommy and Austin, and that is what makes The Autopsy of Jane Doe such a delight as there is little in the way of exposition – we know what the sheriff knows and that is it – and so we have to rely on the two main characters. Fortunately Tommy and Austin are well written and fully fleshed out right from the off, and both Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch put in top-notch performances, earning our sympathies as the corpse on the slab in their lab brings with her more questions than either man can find answers for.
The setup is fairly simple when you look at it and director André Øvredal (Troll Hunter) uses a lot of tricks to make the first hour as enthralling as any classic police procedural you care to name, with Tommy dropping in hints and tricks that coroners use that come into play later on in the film and also changing the tone from one of sterile investigation to a haunting, supernatural chiller, evocative of Lucio Fulci at his horrific and surreal best; a scene where Tommy and Austin try to escape through a thick wall of smoke to the elevator and up to fresh air could have come straight out of The Beyond, such is the nerve-shredding mood and haunting visuals that the director plays with, and despite the serious nature of the story there is the sense that André Øvredal is having fun by genuinely trying to scare as well as intrigue.
However, the film does suffer from a rushed and generic final act that sees the gloomy atmospherics and clever little plot details dropped in favour of a quick resolution and an ending that isn’t totally unexpected and makes you wish that the filmmakers could have come up with a killer blow to end on rather than going exactly where you know they are going to go once the identity of Jane Doe is revealed. It is a bit of a letdown after such a solid and well-crafted setup but it isn’t enough to spoil the movie as a whole. Instead, it is best to sit back and savour a director with a working knowledge of what makes horror movies effective and two lead actors working off each other to create proper characters who, when it is time for the proverbial brown stuff to hit the fan, make everything seem believable despite the coldness of cutting up bodies for a living and not getting emotionally involved being a key element as to how they perceive what is happening to them, especially the experienced Tommy who has seen nearly everything life (and death) has thrown at different cadavers over the years. Despite the shoddy ending The Autopsy of Jane Doe does restore faith in modern genre filmmaking as when it hits those incredible highs the film works tremendously well as an exercise in pure terror that doesn’t get seen or felt enough in mainstream horror. Let’s have more of it please.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★★★ / Movie: ★★★★