The Autopsy of Jane Doe
Cox and Hirsch play father and son coroners who receive a mysterious homicide victim with no apparent cause of death. As they attempt to identify the beautiful young "Jane Doe," they discover increasingly bizarre clues that hold the key to her terrifying secrets.
Ian B. Goldberg
The Autopsy of Jane Doe ended up in my Top 15 Horror Feature Films of 2016 article (see the article here). Full disclosure, it didn’t make the top 15, instead found itself on a list of 10 “Honorable Mentions” for the year. And there’s a very good reason for it coming up short – and just missing the big 15 – which I’ll discuss below. And with all of the many, many horror films released in 2016, being in the top 25 (basically) is still nothing to sneeze at.
And make no mistake, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is (for the most part) a fantastic piece of horror filmmaking.
Small town coroner Tommy Tilden (prolific and recognizable character actor – Brian Cox) and his son-in-training to be part of the business, Austin (Into the Wild’s Emile Hirsch) – late one night, just as they’re closing down shop for the day, receive a female corpse from a recent murder crime scene. This “Jane Doe” (Olwen Kelly) corpse exhibits no outward signs of distress. But as the father/son duo begin their intense examination (the authorities basically want answers yesterday), mysteries build and the few questions answered cannot keep up with those dark mysteries.
The structure of the film (I love linear stories like this) is perfectly mapped out by the usual process that the coroner and his son would normally take for any new subject, when attempting to determine the cause of death. It’s set up that there will be the cursory outside examination, they’ll then move into the internal organs (heart/lungs/digestive system) and then continue on into the brain. All the while, they’ll make up hypotheses. The great thing about this set-up, is that after strange things begin to occur in this basement facility, and few questions are answered, you know they still have the next step ahead of them. It develops a very real sense of anticipation, suspense and danger.
Among the film’s strongest assets is the relationship created by the dialogue and the two lead performances. Tommy is very by the books and unemotional (as you’d need to be in such a career) and Austin is a loyal son – forsaking his own fun to be with his father when work needs to be done. I appreciated that their relationship was never painted as particularly difficult or estranged (as so many films do in order to create some extra drama). It was pretty normal and then they’re thrown into a very abnormal situation. So their clearly strong relationship only serves to shield them and further bond them in light of this trying time. Bottom line, the story didn’t need the added (and potentially clichéd) familial drama to make us care or to succeed in telling the story.
As for these two actors, Hirsch and Cox are both old pros. You would expect nothing less than brilliant performances from them and perfection is what you’ll get. They craft real people we can identify with and with whom we can easily follow on this frightening journey. They deliver the technical jargon with aplomb and you’ll never doubt that they know what they’re talking about (hey, it’s harder to do than you might expect!) But there’s a real emotional connection (although you can tell that this was never a lovey-dovey father/son relationship), and you can tell that the characters respect and love one another.
I also want to quickly mention the performance from Olwen Kelly as “Jane Doe”. She has no lines, barely moves and is nude pretty much the entire time she’s on-screen. Playing dead is an art, and other than a few scenes of her corpse where the special effects crew took over – Kelly is magnificent. But more than her convincing turn as a dead body, it’s what you will see as – I’m sure – a trying shoot for the young actress. Lying naked day after day – exposed to your cast and crew and having to “not breathe”. What I’m sure she endured to make the film – warrants some serious kudos to Kelly. Add in the music and editing and all of the other technical pieces – and despite her no dialogue and no movement – it’s a great performance. Who’d a thunk it?
There were far more scares than I could count, and all very well handled. More than once I was reminded of the stumbling and frightening corpses of Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator. Mangled corpses roaming the darkened hallways are inherently frightening. Add in the old tradition (real or a myth?) of morticians and coroners attaching a tiny bell to the toe of a fresh corpse – and you’re set up for an incredibly effective fright later in the film. It’s all explained in the film, and I’ll spoil nothing here by saying this (if you’re an attentive film-goer, you’ll immediately recognize that you’ll see this “throwaway” dialogue later). I saw it coming a mile away and it still got my heart to racing!
And here we are… The big problem with the film (as I’ve seen in so many other films of the past several years) is that the third act loses momentum and falls apart. It’s not completely detrimental, but it’s enough for me not to allow The Autopsy of Jane Doe into the top 15 (as mentioned above). Once the mystery begins to unravel and more clues help to solve the puzzle of who Jane Doe is and why her corpse is so pristine – didn’t warrant any raucous cheers of “how original” or “how magnificently mind-blowing”. It’s not completely terrible, but with the very carefully constructed build of the intriguing mystery (and obviously then the suspense), the filmmakers/writers had a tough time finishing it off with that same level of “whoa”. I reviewed a film last year called The Abandoned, which had the exact same problem. We love the characters, the film is scary as hell, but the final revelations just didn’t work. And when something jumps out at you as less than what you’ve already seen, you’re removed from the world of the film.
And that’s a shame, because everything else in this film completely worked. Technically, I was very impressed with the production design. The coroner’s facility is in the basement of the family home and it’s an aging building. It’s also a vast space, with a long corridor and many rooms (offices/storage, etc.) and so there is ample room for shadows and corners. Of note is the perfect placement of a corner mirror – you know, one of those curved mirrors to inform a passerby that someone is coming to the same corner from another direction. It’s practical to the film’s world (always a welcome thing in horror films), but then allows for some terrifying images. Wait for it. You won’t be disappointed. And with the age of the facility and the size, there’s room for so many intricate tools and appropriate set dressing. The success of the sets is key in the success of the film. It’s underground and it’s used to examine corpses (you could almost smell the chemicals as the film went on). As I’ve said in other reviews, the devil is in the details.
Despite my reservations, I can’t help but recommend The Autopsy of Jane Doe. It’s perfectly acted, intensely spooky and engaging. Watch, enjoy, but don’t say I didn’t warn you about that noticeable stumbling block late in the film.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is now available on VOD.