This October, we’re challenging ourselves to watch at least one horror movie a day. Today we head to the morgue.
An inherently creepy setting often serves as the perfect foundation upon which to craft a horror film. Whether its Alien’s beaten up spaceship, the labyrinthine corridors of The Overlook Hotel, or the sinister trapping of Rosemary’s Baby’s Branford Apartment Building, a sinister location creates tension in a viewer long before anything bloodcurdling has actually unfolded. With that in mind, I present André Øvredal’s wonderfully entertaining The Autopsy of Jane Doe.
Jane Doe is a fantastically fun horror film, full of tension and unease, coupled with strong central performances that give the film an emotional core it might otherwise lack. The premise is straightforward. Police discover a family murdered in their home, along with the nude corpse of an unidentified young woman. Her cause of death isn’t immediately obvious, so she’s carted off to the local coroners, Tommy Tilden and Austin Tilden, a father and son duo well-played by Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch.
With an appropriately gallows humor and sense of discovery, the Tildens began the titular autopsy, but her appearance yields further mysteries. Her exterior is pristine, with no signs of rigor mortis or discoloration, but her eyes are milky, her tongue is severed, and her insides appear to have been burned. Since we know these characters are in a horror film, we wait for the terror to kick in. Unfortunately, the characters don’t know they’re in a horror film, so the remain in their morgue, continuing to toil away at a mystery that becomes less solvable with each passing revelation.
When it comes to horror settings, there’s probably no better place to put your characters than a morgue. They’re usually darkly lit, littered with corpses and sharp knives, and those who actually work in them are small in number and distant from any potential assistance. Øvredal, best known for Troll Hunter, milks its setting for everything its worth, creating an environment where something deadly could emerge from a darkened corner at any second. Earlier in the film, Tommy Tilden makes a casual reference to the anachronistic practice of putting a bell around someone’s leg so they could make noise if they awoke following a burial. As a viewer, your awareness piques, because you know at some point, you’re going to hear an ominously ringing bell.
Beyond its wonderfully moody setting, what separates Autopsy of Jane Doe from the crowd are its central performances. Brian Cox has both genre work and Shakespeare to his credits, but he never acts as though one is worth his time and one is beneath him. He commits fully, no matter the role. Emile Hirsch’s role is of the “new guy,” still learning the nuances of performing an autopsy and the clues a body can yield, and he’s a likable co-lead. The two of them create a believably playful, father and son relationship. They also ground the proceedings with enough gravitas and verisimilitude to keep the unfolding terrors believable rather than absurd.
If the film has a flaw, it’s that the sprinkling of little clues is far more fun than the actual revelations. The characters have to make some pretty massive leaps of logic to actually put together what’s happening around them, and aren’t mysteries always a bit more fun before they’re solved? It’s to the film’s credit the ride is so much fun that it doesn’t really matter that the destination is a bit anticlimactic. What we’re left with is a roller-coaster ride, stronger performances than a film like this would normally get, and terrifying setup. It may not be a perfect film, but The Autopsy of Jane Doe is well-worth your time.
Here’s What Else We’ve Watched So Far:
- Day 1: Hold the Dark
- Day 2: Hell House, LLC and Hell House, LLC II
- Day 3: Critters
- Day 4: Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn
- Day 5: The Gate
- Day 6: The Fly
- Day 7: Return of the Living Dead
- Day 8: Train to Busan
- Day 9: The Serpent and the Rainbow
- Day 10: The Babadook, Under the Shadow & Dark Water
- Day 11: House of the Devil & The Sacrament
- Day 12: Oculus
- Day 13: The Apostle
- Day 14: The Frighteners
- Day 15: Hands of the Ripper & The Perfume of the Lady in Black
- Day 16: The Blackcoat’s Daughter
- Day 17: Berberian Sound Studio & Matinee
- Day 18: Halloween (1978)
- Day 19: Halloween (2018) & Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
- Day 20: Dead Alive
- Day 21: In the Mouth of Madness
- Day 22: Re-Animator
- Day 23: House & House II: The Second Story
Tomorrow: The Love Witch & Season of the Witch