2016 was a fantastic year for the horror-thriller fans, with a steady stream of impressive mainstream titles (10 Cloverfield Lane, Green Room, The Conjuring 2, The Purge: Election Year, The Witch, The Shallows), international stunners (Train to Busan, The Wailing, Under the Shadow), film festival darlings (I Am Not a Serial Killer) and straight-to-Netflix gems (Hush). With such a generous supply of worthwhile offerings, it is very easy for certain titles to have unjustly flown under the radar and go unseen by many until 2017.
Enter The Autopsy of Jane Doe, a 2016 Toronto International Film Festival selection starring Bryan Cox and Emile Hirsch as a father-son coroner duo whose late night autopsy of a Jane Doe (Olwen Kelly) grows more fraught with danger when their search to determine cause of death yields increasingly confusing and quite possibly supernatural results. Because of the sound design in the opening scene at the crime scene where Jane’s body is found, we’re instantly tipped off that we’re working in horror-thriller territory. As such, while Cox and Hirsch capably go about their own episode of Six Feet Under, the latter struggling to work up the courage to inform the latter that he doesn’t actually want to take over the family business, director André Øvredal’s (Trollhunters) camera routinely cuts to close-ups of the open-eyed, blank expression on the dead woman’s face to heighten the tension. We know something is going to happen, and whatever it is will probably be signaled by her face somehow. But what’s going to happen? And when?
To answer those questions would be spoiling the fun of the movie (I’ll just say there is eventually an ingeniously tense and unsettling scene involving fog seeping into the hallways of the coroner’s office). Even when the twist happens and is later explained the logic of the explanation doesn’t fall apart, as they so often do in these scenarios. Even if you’re not willing to buy the “this is why this is all happening” reveal there are still plenty of quality jump scares leading up to that point.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Ian Goldberg and Richard Nain’s script recognizes what many others have before, i.e., a coroner’s office is inherently creepy, and runs with that in surprising directions. Øvredal’s direction suggests a mastery of tone which marks him as a director to watch. And Cox and Hirsch’s total commitment to selling the scares invites our sympathies and draws us deeper into the mystery. The result is a film which more than earns its seat at the table with 2016’s other quality horror-thrillers.
Thanks to WMIF alum Julianne and the Shockwaves podcast for bringing The Autopsy of Jane Doe to my attention.