3 out of 5
Directed by: André Øvredal
There are some initial hiccups in ‘The Autopsy of Jane Doe’s setup that, thankfully, do not hinder it’s intriguing, and creepy, concept. However, once the proverbial poop hits the fan, the movie ditches a lot of its good will for some sloppy scares and logic, and squanders its still-interesting plotty revelations along the way. By sticking mostly to a grounded approach to its horror, the movie squeaks out ahead, but we unfortunately see this pretty often with the “don’t show the monster” school of horror, in which smartly applied restraint seems to be more of a device to cover for an uncertainty with how to properly escalate and resolve things.
A violent, multiple killing in a small town leads to the discovery of a buried corpse in the basement of a home. The corpse – a Jane Doe – is brought to the father / son run Tilden mortuary, staffed by Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) and Austin (Emile Hirsch), who are tasked with determining the cause of death by morning, but are puzzled to see no external wounds on the body, and yet massive amounts of inflictions upon the internals. As they (literally) dig deeper into the body, odd things start to occur – a radio flipping stations; lights flickering; etc. – as similar oddities are discovered during the autopsy itself. And then poop hits the fan.
I love these types of setups, which tap into the ages-old Lovecraftian notion of the unknown being more frightening than showing us the bogeyman, and films like Jane Doe gain ground by littering out a line of clues such that it seems that whatever we’re building toward will have some type of explanation, instead of just curiosities that are scattered to distract us from whatever’s behind the curtain. Having the audience follow said clues helps to build tension as the characters experience the same; we’re both in the “mystery” – and the struggle as to whether or not to pursue an answer – at the same time. Director André Øvredal wisely avoids anything too flashy visually in support of this, very rigorously keeping us focused on the step-by-step process of the autopsy itself (with some great, seemingly practical effects), and frequent close-ups on the corpse’s (Olwen Kelly) eyes and face, forcing us to confront their lifelessness as incisions and organ removals are being done upon the rest of the form.
Some early hints betray horror cheesiness: Austin’s girlfriend comes for a visit, and is asked to return at a later point when he’s not busy, setting up what we know will be a fake-out scare for when she comes back. This also gives us a little bit of character building – Austin wants out of the autopsy game – which admittedly adds a nice dynamic to his interest in the Jane Doe mystery, but it’s still an eye-rolling moment that has you questioning every scare thereafter for whether or not it’s girlfriend reappearing time. There’s also an inconsistency to the way the father and son react to the strange things as they start happening. Even something as small as the radio changing stations gets no mention when that’s pretty weird in and of itself, but when some larger mishaps start to occur, it’s just brushed off and they get back to work. This is, as suggested, sort of standard for horror, but it makes their eventual response to the fan-hitting seem out of place, like now it’s a problem…?
This is also when Øvredal forgets his grounded approach and starts overdoing it on some effects. While they’re environmental – flame, fog – they just don’t work; they’re incompatible with the “feeling” of the movie, and act as a huge immersion breaker. Further things start piling up in this fashion: the script starts to make huge leaps in logic to achieve its “this is what’s going on!” conclusions, and can’t decide if Brian Cox’s character is a skeptic or a believer, and can’t even settle on the exact “source” of the spookiness, going for related scares instead of zeroing in on things that emanate from the Jane Doe, which has the effect of making us question Why? at an important point in the movie when we should really be fully invested, or at least fully distracted. And with the movie now operating more in a traditional horror format, Danny Bensi’s and Saunder Jurriaans’ score amps up to punctuate moments, which only further underlines some of the character reaction incongruities, and the predictable nature of the spooks versus the more palpable and effective sense of unknowing that was being explored previously.
The only plus to this change in tone is that the movie stays committed to it once it’s there, meaning it’s fairly easy to accept that this slowburn, unique flick has turned into a normal one, and once adjusted to that, it’s still a good enough time. Ultimately, there’s a great flick that held its nerve for longer, but The Autopsy of Jane Doe, on the whole, is a good looking fright film with, at its core, a really interesting “in” to a ghost film.