Film Reviews

31 Days of Halloween: The Autopsy of Jane Doe

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:

Tomorrow: The Love Witch & Season of the Witch

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6 comments

    1. The Possession of Hannah Grace? Yeah, it does look like the bigger budget, major studio version of Autopsy’s comparative minimalism. The setup isn’t entirely the same – Jane Doe is about a witch launching her magic from beyond the grave, Hannah Grace is about a girl dying during a failed exorcism and continuing to wreak supernatural havoc as a cadaver. But, come on, someone at Sony or behind this production has seen Jane Doe. Most hardcore horror fans at least know about this movie considering how often it comes up on the Shock Waves podcast.

  1. I did enjoy this movie. I thought it would be just creepy which it certainly was, but I didn’t expect to like the characters so much, or for the movie to actually be fun.

  2. I really loved this movie. A great horror mystery that has some real terrifying moments with amazing tension. I’m referring to the elevator scene and that damn bell. Also, Olwen Catherine Kelly is awesome in her ability to play dead. Jane Doe is one of the scariest things about the movie and it’s just a dead body.

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