Director: André Øvredal
Writers: Ian B. Goldberg (as Ian Goldberg), Richard Naing
Stars: Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch, Ophelia Lovibond
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a film of two halves and two very different ones at that. Brisk in pace and relatively simple in the story department, Scandinavian director, André Øvredal (Troll Hunter) brings a suspenseful, low budget horror film, largely revolving around the corpse of a young lady and the secrets her body holds within.
It begins somewhere in Virginia (it never does say where), opening with a cool, little camera spin that focuses on the lawn of a peaceful residential setting. It’s anything but internally however, as moving inside, the elderly occupants appear to have been brutally murdered in highly suspicious circumstances. There’s a sense of real bewilderment from the investigating police officers at the bloody remains and scene, manner of death and doors that appeared to have been locked from within. This is further compounded when they make the bizarre discovery of the partially buried corpse of a young woman in the basement below. Headed up by Sheriff Burke (Michael McElhatton), they’re looking for answers and quick.
Step forward Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austin (Emile Hirsch), the father and son duo that work as coroners at the local, family run mortuary. The buildings facade looks rickety and ancient, but the old saying ‘never judge a book by its cover’ was tailor made for this precise situation. Tommy is an experienced veteran at his craft and when the Jane Doe (she was discovered with no trace of ID and was given the titular name as a result) is wheeled in, he’s only too happy to oblige the puzzled, confounded Burke and he eagerly sets about trying to discover both her origin and the cause of death.
As I mentioned earlier, this film is a tale of two halves and the first half is infinitely more enjoyable as a spectacle than what comes afterwards. This is mainly because the whole feel of the first half is less of a supernatural horror. Instead, Øvredal opts to focus firmly on the mystery element and the steadily growing, seemingly coincidental, weird happenings taking place in the morgue as investigate the woman’s body. As Tommy and Austin cut open the human pandora’s box lying before them, they gradually discover a plethora of different clues within her corpse that at times leave them with more questions than answers. From severely broken wrists and ankles; bizarre scarring and occult markings on her internal organs; a strange rag message within her bowels to badly blackened lungs, all hidden below an angelic looking body externally that belies the internal trauma.
It’s really after the pair begin delving further into the hidden secrets the woman possesses that the film makes its tonal/genre shift away from the more realistic, mystery heavy setting in the first half to the more supernatural horror style in the second half. Don’t get me wrong, Øvredal’s direction was still decent after this point and the unsettling, eerie, claustrophobic, atmosphere was very well utilised, especially when the walking, bell wearing, corpses were scurrying around. Ultimately though, I just felt the payoff for the long buildup of tension wasn’t anywhere near rewarding enough for the viewer and the whole anti-misogynistic, reverse curse, Salem witch trial explanation came across just a little bit convoluted to me. I’ve seen other people mention that it was clever, perhaps I’m missing something? With all that said, I did like the little twist towards the end involving Austin and his ‘rescuers’.
There wasn’t exactly a massive cast in this film, with the overwhelming majority of the film involving three characters and one of them was a stiff. Brian Cox was excellent as Tommy, and for me, put in the the best performance in the film. His character almost narrated the film in some ways, as he systematically went through the autopsy, breaking down each stage and examining everything with a fine tooth comb. His performance in particular brought a level of believability to the films events, even as they took a more traditional horror turn. Emile Hirsch was also pretty good as Austin, the heir apparent and son of Tommy. He had very good chemistry with Cox and their on-screen relationship was one of the highlights for me. Massive respect to Olwen Catherine Kelly too for what must have been a mundane experience as the unmoving corpse. It couldn’t have been easy lying naked, doing nothing for the duration of the shoot and she made a very believable and unnerving corpse. Unfortunately, Mr. Radcliffe’s portrayal of a dead person is still the best I’ve seen however.
Roman Osin’s cinematography has to be given some recognition too. He nailed the almost clinical, distant filming style of the early morgue scenes, allowing the viewer to feel detached from the experience, whilst watching the autopsy take place before them. This had the effect (for me at least) of lessening the distaste at some of the fairly explicit gore of these scenes. I also liked the unsettlingly frequent pans to the face of the woman, which built the tension excellently just before the shit hit the metaphorical fan. The CG was pretty poor, but I’ll give them a pass for that as it was a low budget film.
I liked this film in parts and whilst I understand it had to have some sort explanation for the corpses undamaged appearance and connection with the murders seen earlier in the film. I just felt it could have been executed a little better and I found the abrupt change in tone in the middle a little jarring. I’m not easily scared, so the jump scares did nothing for me, but I’ll admit to feeling damn anxious as the corpse made its way to towards Tommy and Austin as they waited for the elevator to make it’s way down. The death that came immediately after left me a little perplexed, but again there was a fairly neat piece of symmetry involved there that I did appreciate.
Would I recommend it though? It’s certainly not the worst I’ve seen, but I’ve seen much better too. I’d probably give it a miss if being honest.