There are worse movie titles than The Autopsy of Jane Doe, I suppose, but it’s up there. Having said that, it made me notice it enough to find out it was a horror movie starring Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch, which I found a little surprising. Sure, it isn’t unheard of for name actors to be in horror movies (even B listers like Cox and Hirsch), but it’s rare – especially when the movie has no name talent attached behind the camera, something that generally signifies low budget and low smarts. By this, I’m referring to the fodder you can see in Netflix’s horror lists – mostly a stream of shit that heads swiftly down the drain.
But I’m a champion of low budget, well intentioned horror – you can scroll through my other reviews to see that. For every ten no-name zombie piece of crap, you’ll find a Darling, It Follows, Resolution, and We Are Still Here. Not to say that these movies are examples of genre greats like Cronenberg’s The Fly, and Carpenter’s The Thing, but you can tell when watching that the talent both in front and back of camera were trying to make a movie they believed in, and that’s huge for any low budget genre movie, but especially so for horror – a genre that lends itself well to low budget moviemaking.
Nevertheless, even with the names of Cox and Hirsch, I approached it warily. I didn’t know at the time it was directed by André Øvredal, who directed Trollhunter, a movie that I mostly enjoyed, but which ultimately struggled under the weight of its premise. I can actually say exactly the same about The Autopsy of Jane Doe.
The premise is taut and simple – upon receiving the mysterious corpse close to closing time, a father and son team of coroners set out to determine the woman’s cause of death, and in doing so, unleash supernatural forces that trap them and subject them to a night of terror. I was hooked from the get go – good setup and nice character work from writers Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing. Fused with other strong elements like production design and musical score, as well as the acting from the two leads, the movie settles quickly into a rhythmic pattern of procedural with a deepening mystery at its core. Øvredal smartly lets the story unfold at a pace you could call leisurely, but given the subject matter it’s appropriate.
Not that the movie will teach you much about the work of coroners, but I felt that there was a serious attempt to inject these specific scenes with the sobriety and gravity that outsiders to the profession, me included, feel must be there, even if that’s not truly the case. In other words, the movie feels as real as a horror movie about coroners needs to, and it works. There’s a strong sense of atmosphere throughout the movie up to the midpoint. It’s after this that things start to get too ambitious in the narrative for the script to pull off effectively, but even here, when the movie threatens to plunge off the cliff into schlock, it never does. The second half of the movie contains a lot more examples of scenes that could have been better conceived, restructured, consolidated and even removed, and the big scene where Cox speculates on what’s happening with the corpse is a pretty awful piece of exposition. I understand that the movie needs some kind of reasonable explanation at some point, but Cox’s character pretty much nails down exactly what’s happening from no physical evidence, a piece of cloth, and his trusty bible. It was a real eye-roller for me, but I was also distracted by scenes where rooms are returned to with no real point. I find that kind of storytelling annoyingly circular and static. If you have to make characters go somewhere, have it be a location they’ve yet to explore, or at least provide a compelling reason to revisit it in order to find new information for the audience.
Still, for two thirds of its running time, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is an engaging piece of horror fiction, and it ends on a suitably downbeat note – the final coda is kind of unnecessary, I thought. It doesn’t add to the narrative, just provides an “uh-oh, here we go again!” stinger after the story proper is done with.
Despite the second half of the movie breaking with the narrative to rely mostly on horror tropes and that terrible piece of exposition, it’s very watchable indeed. I liked it just fine, but wished Goldberg and Naing had used tighter reins on their storyline as it developed.