What is it all about?
A coroner and his son are trapped in a morgue shortly after the arrival of a woman’s corpse. They name her Jane Doe as she is without an identity and it is up to them to get to the bottom of the cause of her death. When strange things start happening, they believe she may be the cause.
“When was the last time I saw a good horror film set in the morgue?”
Of all the places on this Earth, you would think the setting of a place where we lay the dead would be awash with horror films, but apart from 2014’s sequel See No Evil 2 and going way back to 1997, the remake of NightWatch starring a pre-Obi Wan, Ewan McGregor, my brain rattled with this question.
The Autopsy Of Jane Doe uses this setting to its maximum effect. It knows this is a place where we are all going to end up, a destination we all don’t want to think about, and with a thunderstorm raging outside, along with a maze of corridors that seem to lead nowhere, this horror already wins points for effectiveness, even if the script fails to match the many good things that are happening on screen.
Norwegian director Andre Ovredal who gave the world the quite brilliant Trollhunter, knows exactly what he is doing in his first English language film. The camera angles, the use of music in certain scenes, even when the camera lingers on the corpse in front of us, it gives an air of menace, like its alive and knows what we are thinking. The fact is the dead body of the young girl is the most important character in the film and its brilliantly played by Olwen Kelly, who even though she just lays there naked for the entire film, she comes across like the ultimate bogeyman. I mean how can you kill something that is already dead?
There are not many times that I’ll watch an horror and think this would make a brilliant stage show, but this is exactly what this film is, a mostly three character driven story all set in the same room and if it weren’t for the cast itself, then it never would have worked.
For a film to rely on its story it needs the actors to sell it to the audience and thankfully with Kelly showing an art of how to be dead on a table, the class of Brian Cox drags this film up from the moments it reaches silliness. Cox plays Tommy, a local mortician who has ran the family business for many years alongside his son Austin (Emile Hirsch). Both are on form here, especially Cox who as events spiral out of control around him, tries his best to think of everything rational before realising that something else is amiss here.
The story is simple. A young woman’s body is found half buried in mysterious circumstances and the local police bring her to the morgue where they are hoping for “answers by the morning”. Tommy, the pro, agrees to work on through the night, while Austin, who had plans with his girlfriend and is also having thoughts about leaving the family business, feels guilty (and curious) and cancels his date and helps out. Its here that at first the film plays like a detective story. Both examine and do an autopsy on the young girl, while making notes on a big board, trying to find clues into what happened to this victim.
But as they cut deeper, they discover strange things. Unexplained broken bones to go with burns, occult symbols, blood that runs from her body in a rush. As the puzzle becomes even harder to work out and the storm outside gets worse, they start to hear noises from other rooms, the radio begins to play weird things and the bells on the dead start to ring, yes its basically a haunted house movie all set in one room.
There are many positives about his film. The acting is fantastic, Cox and Hirsch bounce off each other brilliantly throughout. You do sit in awe watching these two men of science, trained in their jobs, struggle to comprehend at what is happening around them. What I loved is they don’t treat us the viewer as idiots. Most horror films make us sigh at the stupid actions of those we are watching, but Tommy and Austin do everything right. They try to use their knowledge of the job for the majority of the running time, but then realise they just have to basically try to survive the night. Its a brilliant showcase of talent from the two.
Also the direction of Ovredal is first class. Showing massive restraint during the opening half, Ovredal never overplays his hand, making the film creep with tension, adding a few layers here and there and showing he really is another talented director to look out for in the ever growing list.
Sadly though the film does fall apart towards the end. The weight of expectation that it so greatly built throughout collapses as the script comes to the point of the old cliché situation. There are hardly no surprises as Jane Doe shows her intentions. Any shocks and twists have been seen many times by a horror veteran and its a great shame that the film falters like it does.
It doesn’t quite leave a bitter aftertaste, but after the film cleverly constructs its plot, you can not help but feel very underwhelmed by the same old finale. I feel a bit guilty writing this because for the majority of the running time its a perfect little horror and readers of HCF may ask “what more do you want?”, its just after a brilliant build up and a quite original plot, it was a shame in my eyes that the film went down a well trodden path. Perhaps I was expecting more bite and a spark of creativity, only because the film offered it to me many times……
Perhaps after many years of watching the genre, my horror heart is as cold as Jane Doe on that slab……
But don’t let me put you off. With enough gore to appease the bloodhounds, The Autopsy Of Jane Doe does not quite match the massive hype it has generated, but never the less, its an effective crowd pleaser that moves along with a brisk place that will no doubt find a home in the hearts of many horror lovers, who will probably add a star to the rating below.