The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016, dir. André Øvredal)
Our film opens with a scene that immediately ropes us in. Triple homicide. The old couple who lives at the residence. A plumber who was servicing the house. No signs of forced entry. The strangest thing in a very strange crime scene turns out to the half-buried body of a young woman, not a mark on her. The protagonists of our story are Austin Tilden (Emile Hirsch) and his father Tommy (Brian Cox), the latest in a family line of morticians. They have a contract with the local police to do forensic work in their morgue with an emphasis on just determining the cause of death. The body of Jane Doe arrives late one night, and they begin to find strange marks and injuries on her that lead into a night of terror.
Autopsy marks the follow-up feature by director André Øvredal who last brought us, Troll Hunter, a Norwegian horror film that offered a smart take on the found footage genre. Whereas Øvredal wrote Troll Hunter, this time he directs a script by a writer from Once Upon a Time among other television work. The premise for this horror flick is great. Tons of questions are raised from the crime scene alone, and the first half of the film compounds those questions as strange things are discovered in the body. However, when the horror tropes start to kick in the film begins to feel painfully formulaic. There is one particular misdirect/death that happens about ⅔ through the film that had my wife and I both, groaning. It comes out of nowhere and feels logistically impossible that this person could have been in this place at that time. Definite plot convenience to shock the audience with a twist kind of territory.
The film does offer a few jump scares but overall chooses to focus on the creeping dread the autopsy causes. The condition of individual organs don’t make sense. Objects are found in her stomach that should have been digested by now. Bones are broken in very specific ways. We also spend a lot of time developing the father/son dynamic but that seems to peter out when the script decides it’s “horror time” and we have dead bodies wandering around. These are two very good actors that aren’t given much more than moments to react in the script.
Owlen Catherine Kelly plays Jane Doe, and it is a very challenging role because it would seem she just has to lay there naked and motionless for the runtime of the film. Øvredal takes advantage of a film technique called the Kuleshov effect. The idea is that by juxtaposing an expressionless face with other images, you can influence the audience’s perceptions of what emotion the face is showing. Very clever cuts are made from supernatural, spooky events, to the morticians, and finally to Jane’s face causing that expressionless face to feel more and more sinister as we get deeper into the film.
Overall, I was incredibly disappointed by this film. The clips that had been shared online came from the first half which is brimming with potential and has a lot of the elements in place to be a great horror film. My only guess is that the writer didn’t know where they were going with that first half and, instead of working out some clever way to bring these elements together, just went with tired old horror cliches and an incredibly unsatisfying ending.