Autopsy of Jane Doe, The (2016)
Starring Emile Hirsch, Brian Cox, Ophelia Lovibond
Directed by Andre Ovredal
Screened at Fantastic Fest 2016
Following 2010’s riot of a found footage creature feature Trollhunter, Norwegian director Andre Ovredal returns with his English language debut, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, which recently screened at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. Trading in his humor-laden, fantastical approach for more traditional horror fare, Ovredal delivers a film that is mostly effective, though it is not without its problems.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe follows father-son coroner team Austin and Tommy Tilden (Hirsch and Cox, respectively) as they receive the body of a beautiful young homicide victim with no clear cause of death. Attempting to uncover how she died, the Tildens begin to perform an autopsy on the deceased, slowly revealing clues that become more and more bizarre as the night goes on. As inexplicable happenings begin to unfold in their family morgue, the coroners begin to suspect that there is something very special about the circumstances that led to their Jane Doe’s death.
Though it is very much a straightforward horror film, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is also very concerned with the theme of family, with a story that is heavily focused on Cox and Hirsch’s relationship. Screenwriters Ian B. Goldberg and Richard Naing do a solid job of developing a believable and enjoyable father-son dynamic between Cox and Hirsch from the get-go as we are introduced to the ins and outs of Austin and Tommy’s autopsy sessions and the quirks of their practice. Though it is occasionally the case that such seasoned actors might opt to phone in their performances in such genre projects, Cox and Hirsch both deliver above and beyond here, digging deep emotionally in some of the more intense scenes far more than would be expected in this type of film.
Boasting a plot that is rather unique, The Autopsy of Jane Doe starts off particularly strong; the introduction of the mystery of Jane Doe’s death is immediately intriguing, and as the discoveries grow stranger, it is very easy to find yourself pondering the myriad possibilities that might ultimately explain what the truth really is. Are naturally bizarre or supernaturally malevolent forces at work here? Ovredal’s careful hand initially keeps you unsure, relying on an effective ambiguity that sets a very unsettling tone. Unfortunately, once the truth begins to surface, the script itself becomes one of the film’s most problematic traits. In its second half, some of the exchanges between Cox and Hirsch grow far too expository and even silly, though both actors commit wholly to even the weaker material here. There are also some turns of plot that are much too convenient for a film like this that otherwise has a lot of original ideas going for it.
Given that the film is set almost entirely in the Tilden family morgue, Ovredal succeeds in establishing a very claustrophobic atmosphere, especially in the more deliberately paced and slowly revelatory autopsy scenes. Though he delivers some truly chilling imagery throughout, the director’s ultimate over-reliance on run-of-the-mill scare tactics is what truly prevents The Autopsy of Jane Doe from elevating to a wholly novel horror experience. There are times when the scares here reminded me heavily of Anthony DiBlasi’s Last Shift run through a “James Wan lite” filter. One particular moment of misdirection in a very intense elevator scene left me feeling especially frustrated, mostly because we have seen it done a million times before (and to greater effect in other films). For a director that gave us such a refreshing and fun take on the genre with his previous effort, it is a shame to see his Stateside debut peppered with so many overly used devices.
Still, what The Autopsy of Jane Doe lacks in genuine jump-out-of-your-seat thrills, it makes up for in outright squirm-inducing practical effects. The autopsy scenes are just the perfect amount of icky, and the accompanying sound design will leave you cringing… in the best way. Ovredal’s marked focus on Jane Doe’s truly terrifying corpse also sets an increasingly menacing tone to the film that helps it overcome its shortcomings elsewhere. Jane Doe herself (Olwen Kelly) becomes a surprisingly commanding presence in the film for a corpse, and you will no doubt see her cloudy, glazed over eyes in your nightmares for weeks to come.
Despite its flaws and occasional moments of directorial regression for Ovredal, The Autopsy of Jane Doe provides enough of a unique spin on the story it ultimately tells to certainly be worth a watch. It is most definitely the kind of horror film that is best enjoyed if you leave your expectations at the door and just commit to taking the fun, quirky, and occasionally surprising ride.
Had a chance to catch The Autopsy of Jane Doe? Share your thoughts with me on Twitter!