An unexpected, horrifying Christmas treat.
By Alex Welch
2016 has been an inarguably great year for horror films, from chilling arthouse outings like The Witch and The Monster (both, interestingly enough, came from A24), all the way to horrifying studio films like The Conjuring 2, Don’t Breathe, and Ouija: Origin of Evil. By all accounts, this will likely go down as a milestone year for the genre, which has already been on a steady climb back to greatness over the past few years, and with just a few more weeks to go until 2016 is over, the year still has one great horror tale to fill our nightmares with.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a single-location film that at times, feels just as much like a supernatural horror story as it does an engrossing, blood-filled mystery. Starring Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch, the film centers around father and son duo, Austin (Hirsch) and Tommy (Cox) Tilden, who work feverishly as their Virginian town’s go-to coroners out of their family’s underground, labyrinthian morgue. Both experts at deconstructing dead bodies and determining cause of death, the two are just about to call it a day when the film begins, before agreeing last minute to examine the body of an unidentified Jane Doe, delivered to them by the blunt Sheriff Sheldon (Michael McElhatton).
Found at the center of a gruesome triple murder, the body (Olwen Kelly) was discovered buried and untouched in the basement of the house where the murders took place. Where the three deaths in the house seem like they could be written off as a simple B&E-gone-wrong, the body’s inclusion in the crime throws a wrench into that explanation, as one of the officers ominously theorizes that it seems like the three victims weren’t trying to get in when they died, but were possibly trying to get out.
We want to hear it.
Looking for answers, Sheldon tasks Tommy and Austin with determining Jane Doe’s cause of death as quickly as possible, and if they can, why she was at the scene of the crime in the first place. On the surface, it seems like an easy in-and-out case and when we meet them, both are listening to loud rock music in the morgue while dissecting a body, and their relationship is established effectively when Tommy proceeds to give Austin (and us) a lesson in not always declaring the most obvious solution as the correct one. To them, Jane Doe is just like any body, but as they begin to uncover more and more strange mysteries about the body itself, it becomes clear fairly quickly that nothing is as it seems, as Austin and Tommy are eventually trapped by an unknown supernatural force in their basement.
Marking the first English feature from director André Øvredal, following 2010’s Trollhunter, the filmmaker has created a thrilling, complete, and inventive horror film in a year that was already filled to the brim with them. Unfurling with a calculated intensity, The Autopsy of Jane Doe only grows more and more terrifying and personal with each inspection and discovery found inside of the film’s titular body, and like with many of the other, recent horror outings we’ve seen, the film succeeds because of its admirable attention to character. Both Hirsch and Cox give some of their best performances to date as Tommy and Austin, filling the characters with enough soul to make them a believable duo, simultaneously providing the film with the emotional backbone it desperately needs in order to work as a whole.
The screenplay by Ian B. Goldberg and Richad Naing is one crafted with a razor sharp precision, taking several tired horror genre conventions and plot points and breathing new life (no pun intended) into them in their own unique way. The blood and physical gore may be too intense for some viewers, and I’ll admit to turning away even during some of the film’s more… intense medical procedures, but because of the Tildens’ occupations and the characters’ disconnected approach to the autopsies they perform, none of it ever feels gratuitous either.
The film moves at a brisk pace as the events in the morgue grow even scarier and more demented, but unlike some other haunted house films of recent memory, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is wisely allowed time to breathe along the way, never making its characters fall too far behind what’s going on, and never ends up feeling too much like an amusement park ride. It’s not perfect by any means, and there’s more than a few times when it feels like Austin or Tommy are edging dangerously close to becoming the kind of frustrating, clueless horror movie protagonists that have plagued the genre for years.
Thankfully, they’re never taken advantage of by the film’s plot and script like lesser horror films have been known to do with their characters, and Øvredal trusts his actors to do their jobs in bringing Austin and Tommy to life with the kind of care that The Autopsy of Jane Doe needs, and luckily, both Hirsch and Cox live up their end of the bargain.
The same can be said for the entirety of The Autopsy of Jane Doe, which thanks to its unique and inventive premise, starts out with the kind of potential that doesn’t come around very often, and thanks to Øvredal’s clear enthusiasm, the film is able to live up to that potential from beginning to end. The filmmaker uses every aspect of the central morgue to his advantage in creating his set pieces, from the actual steel coffins Austin and Tommy keep the bodies in, all the way to a unique use of the duo’s radio that surprisingly gives the film some of its more effective and chillingly heightened moments of horror. All of this eventually leading to a crescendo conclusion to the film’s second act that’ll likely be remembered by those who see The Autopsy of Jane Doe as nothing short of iconic.
If there was only one word to describe The Autopsy of Jane Doe, it would be “effective.” Featuring stellar performances from both Emile Hirsch and Brian Cox, the film marks yet another exciting addition to André Øvredal’s growing resume. It’s one of this year’s many unexpected, last-minute surprises that will hopefully avoid flying too far under-the-radar amidst a crowded month of intergalactic space operas and serious Oscar contenders.