Because autopsies aren’t creepy enough on their own.
André Øvredal, you glorious Norwegian, you. As if writing and directing the fantastic monster movie, Trollhunter (2010), wasn’t enough, you come back with this directorial masterpiece. The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a slick, claustrophobic movie. The pacing is near perfect and close to Lovecraftian. A satisfying “slow burn” (which should make Mike happy). Revelations come, quite literally, piece by piece and slice by slice, each one steadily building the tension towards the horrifying, aeon haunted, psyche crumbling truth!
Ahem. Give me a minute…
Okay, let’s just dive in, shall we? The movie takes place in the presumably cozy burg of Grantham, Virginia and opens on a not-so-cozy crime scene. Police and the forensic team are tagging clues and taking pictures of several dead bodies in a regular ol’ single family home when one of the officers alerts Sheriff Burke (Michael McElhatton; a.k.a., Roose Bolton from Game of Thrones) that there’s something he should see in the basement. Down we go to discover none other than Jane Doe (Olwen Catherine Kelly) half buried in the basement floor.
Being the only unidentified corpse, Ms. Doe gets pushed to the front of the autopsy line and is delivered to the Tilden Morgue & Crematorium. The Tilden Morgue has been the local go-to place for dead people for a couple of generations and its current proprietor, Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox), also acts as the area’s medical examiner. With video camera rolling and audio system recording, Tommy and his son, Austin (Emile Hirsch), begin the autopsy of Jane Doe. As the examination progresses, the evening goes more and more pear-shaped, leaving father and son with no other alternative than to conclude they’re not dealing with your run-of-the-mill corpse.
The fact that the director lets you use your imagination to fill in the blanks is probably my favorite thing about this movie. Sure, they could show a close up of a corpse that’s sustained a shotgun blast to the face. Movies do it all the time. But, showing you a sheet-covered body with a large and disturbingly red-tinted divot in the sheet where the face should be? That can be worse. Not that it isn’t a gory film. You’ve still got the autopsy to contend with, but it’s not a gratuitously gory movie. Splatterpunk this is not. Smoke-obscured figures, distorted reflections in mirrors, and other tricks of the trade lend a classic subtlety to the film that I found very effective.
And let’s talk about the autopsy. Jane Doe is actually played by a real person. Because of the numerous close-ups during the autopsy scenes, André Øvredal felt that having a real person on the slab instead of using prosthetics would make it more visceral, more human. I’d have to agree. Though, admittedly, I did think it was a little amusing when the credits said “And introducing: Olwen Catherine Kelly as Jane Doe.” Wait, what? The corpse? Is she a method actor like Jared Leto who wore his blindness lenses and stumbled around the set of Blade Runner 2049 during his down time? Did the rest of the Autopsy cast find Olwen flopped over tables in the cafeteria or laid out next to the espresso cart?
But I digress.
There are a few jump scares in the film — which I consider to be the lowest rung in the hierarchy of scares — but most of the horror comes from connecting with the father/son team and then realizing just how cosmically screwed they are. TV writers Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing did a fantastic job with the Autopsy script. The characters are given chances to shine in their own right without interrupting the flow of the film while their choices and actions in the face of what they’re seeing are intelligent and logical. The best example being what can only be described as the power surge scene which tips the scales on the weird-o-meter and causes Tommy, the skeptical father, to throw in the towel — “Let’s get the f#¢k out of here.”
So… why isn’t this a five-star film? To be totally honest, I just have a hard time giving out five stars. Specifically, though, there’s one tiny bit of exposition by the father that I thought was unnecessary. Brian Cox delivered it excellently, of course, I just didn’t think it added anything to the movie and was a bit jarring.
Ignore my perfectionism, though. Do yourself a favor and watch this movie. It’s 99.44/100% pure spooky fun.