Holy Shit, but The Autopsy of Jane Doe is an amazing movie. If you like the horror genre, you have to see this movie. If you like being so scared in the theatre that you can’t sit still in your seat, you have to see this movie. If you like wanting to cover your eyes just as much as you want to see what happens next, you have to see this movie. If you like not realizing that you’ve screamed until you hear the sound of your own voice, you have to see this movie. It’s so good! I left the theatre beyond satisfied.
The skilled director at the helm is Norwegian filmmaker Andre Ovredal (my apologies for missing the correct accents on his name). The movie stars Billy Cox and Emile Hirsch as Tommy and Austin Tilden, a father and son team who run a morgue/coroner’s business that has been in the family for three generations. The relationship between them, which the movie takes an appropriate amount of time to build, is clearly loving and supportive while also steeped in deeply engrained roles and suffering from a lack of communication. Tommy and Austin are finishing up a long day of dissecting corpses when the town Sheriff, coming from a mysterious and disturbing crime scene, wheels in the most confounding of the dead bodies, a young woman who has no outward signs of any trauma. The sheriff impresses upon Tommy and Austin that he needs a cause of death for the young woman by morning. Austin is on the verge of departing for a date night with his girlfriend, but decides to stay behind and help his father with this unexpected rush job. His decision has much to do with the fact that he feels concern and some responsibility for his father, who has become isolated after his wife’s passing. As Tommy and Austin begin work on the confounding corpse, events take a turn for the frighteningly unusual.
We all know the exhausted formula for all of the predictably boring horror movies that come out every year. There’s a group of attractive young people. They get into a bunch of debauchery. They are punished for said debauchery by a psychotic killer/ghost/psychotic killer ghost. There’s a lot of running around and hiding. At some point you find yourself wondering why so and so has decided to perform a seance in a haunted mansion rather than respectfully leaving it lie. At another point, you wonder why so and so is having a chat with a different so and so about how angry their parents are going to be when they get home past curfew. (Guess what, kid? You’re not going home, at all, ever. At least, not alive.) One of the worst parts of most contemporary horror movies is when the audience inevitably has to guess at where certain character motivations are coming from or why a certain thing has happened, because the verbal and visual storytelling do not make it clear. The delicious terror in a horror movie comes from imagining yourself as the main character(s) and asking yourself how you would survive the deadly and otherworldly circumstances that they are encountering. It’s really hard to invest in a character and imagine yourself in their situation when you are constantly marveling at how astoundingly bad the characters’ decision-making skills are. In The Autopsy of Jane Doe every decision that the characters make feels like it logically follows.
In order for decisions and choices to feel logical, characters’ personalities have to be well-defined so that the ways that a character moves forward in the story aligns satisfyingly with the way that they perceive the world. One of the best scenes in The Autopsy of Jane Doe occurs when Tommy Tilden, the staunchly logical, no-nonsense father, finally acknowledges that the main characters are facing some sort of threat and that it is time to “get the fuck out of here”. The moment is so perfect, because as events in the movie get more and more bizarre and ominous, the father consistently takes events in stride and ignores things that seem strange or finds logical explanations for them. The audience has been clinging to logic with him in an atmosphere that is odd but not unexplainable. When the tension finally builds to an event that is completely outside of the realm of the possible the audience and the father know beyond a shadow of a doubt that something sinister is going on.
Another great thing about The Autopsy of Jane Doe is the slow build of the film. Ovredal takes time to fill the unsettling atmosphere with details that pay off in delicious ways throughout the film. I don’t want to give any spoilers for the expertly-crafted scares, but I will tell you that there’s a sound that grows from something innocuous to something that fills the characters and the audience with dread.
My only issue with The Autopsy of Jane Doe is that in the last twenty minutes of the film the pace and the dialogue get really rushed and exposition heavy. For the majority of the film the father, Tommy, speaks intentionally and sparingly. His words to both his son and his son’s girlfriend can be construed as both sagely yet critical. Then, as the film draws to a close, he begins spouting off theories and needlessly explaining the action like the mad scientist in a disaster movie. Austin, who has been first, the charming laidback foil for his father, and second, the wide-eyed innocent to be shepherded through the supernatural goings-on, suddenly starts echoing his father’s explanation dialogue and then adding on more explanation. It’s a clunky and obvious shift that pulls the audience out of the atmosphere, which is disappointing, because the atmosphere is so well built at this point in the film. It’s even more disappointing, because the explanation really isn’t needed. The film, thus far, has relied on uncertainty, and it has done just fine. Perhaps Ovredal felt pressure to wrap up the mystery by the end of the film, but what made the film so great was the mystery. Part of horror is not being able to understand bizarre and threatening events and being unsure of how to combat the threat you are facing or even of what the threat is. Ovredal was nailing this until the last section of the film, but, luckily the clunky explanation part is short, and the movie gets back on track for a great and chilling ending.
One more compliment to The Autopsy of Jane Doe is that fact that it features different kinds of characters than a lot of horror films. There are only three main characters and three supporting characters, and all of them are white, so I can’t exactly claim that the film is diverse. However, it’s refreshing to watch people fleeing from evil who are not young, fair-skinned, long-haired, amply-bosomed girls or young, fair-skinned, barrel-chested, mindlessly-horny boys. Grizzled old men can flee from evil in entertaining ways also.
I love, love, love, love, love horror movies, and I love the thrill and exhilaration that comes from being truly scared. Unfortunately, most contemporary horror movies leave me not at all frightened and deeply disappointed. During The Autopsy of Jane Doe, I actually picked up my sweater and held it over my eyes. This movie is scary good. I was also lucky enough to attend a screening at the Chicago International Film Festival, where my fellow moviegoers were just as thrilled and energized as I was. Our collective squirming and gasping only heightened the feel of the movie, but even if you watch The Autopsy of Jane Doe alone in your darkened bedroom (be prepared to be afraid to leave the room if you do) you’ll deeply enjoy it.