*Spoiler alert* – Please watch the movie before reading.
I worry sometimes that I’ve become a horror snob. The more new horror I watch, the more frustrated I become. Blood and gore and jump scares are fine and have their place, but it seems to be getting harder to find a good story with characters you actually want to know about, much less care that they survive to the end. I have stopped many movies on Netflix long before the ending simply because I knew they were going to be a waste of time.
This goes for many movies that have been hyped and built up. I’ve watched a few of these lately, excited to finally watch something everyone is saying is just the best, only to be left with a general feeling of, “Eh.” And believe me, I know perfectly well I have recommended films to others only to have them feel the same. Well, to each her own. The great thing about horror is there are many sub-genres to choose from. No one goes home hungry. The trick is to find the ones that do it for you; sometimes that takes a lot of taste testing. I have my own particular addictions, but I think that is a whole other article.
I wasn’t really surprised to learn Ándre Øvredal directed THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE. He also did TROLLHUNTER, an offbeat film I loved. Øvredal and co-writers Ian B. Goldberg and Richard Naing know how to tell a good story, how to let it unfold naturally. Cinematographer Roman Osin creates a look that makes the labyrinthine morgue feel like a coffin. There are empty side rooms that don’t feel empty and hallway mirrors giving the impression that the characters are not alone.
Tommy (Brian Cox) and his son Austin (Emile Hirsch) run the town morgue and mortuary. Their slow night is interrupted by an odd arrival. Jane Doe (Olwen Catherine Kelly) is a young girl whose nude corpse is found partially buried in the basement of the scene of an apparent home invasion. However, her pristine body doesn’t jibe with the three other bullet-ridden and hacked up bodies found upstairs. This discrepancy leads a freaked-out Sheriff Burke (Michael McElhatton) to insist on a late-night autopsy with quick, and hopefully easy, answers.
I appreciate that the movie doesn’t go down the typical road of overbearing father / resentful son. One of the best parts of the movie is the easy, genuine, albeit complicated affection Tommy and Austin have for each other. The death of Austin’s mother obviously hangs between them, and Austin does want to move on, but he loves his father and worries about leaving him alone. Tommy gives the impression of someone who is already spiritually gone but is just hanging around for the sake of his son. The two have seemingly shut themselves away in the underground morgue, bonded by their love of the science. Even Austin’s girlfriend Emma (Ophelia Lovibond) seems to realize she can’t compete and resigns to yet another broken date.
The autopsy seems to start out normally, although the tape deck radio blasting old music contradicts Austin’s cellphone. Brian really has cocooned himself. Quickly, however, they know they aren’t dealing with a normal corpse. Externally, Jane Doe shows no signs of injury or trauma or even any evidence of death. Internally, it’s a different story. Her tongue has been cut out and her wrists and ankles are shattered. They find peat mud in her hair, leading them to feel she is originally from up North. They begin throwing around the possibility of human trafficking. Austin wants to accept this and wrap things up, but Brian insists on looking further.
They begin cutting and find that Jane Doe suffered massive and different types of internal trauma, including evidence of burning and stabbing. As the autopsy progresses, strange things start happening in the morgue. Odd voices and music breaking through the radio static as well as reports of a sudden terrible storm closing in. Lights in the morgue go in and out. They find remains of juniper berries and a strange parchment wrapped around one of Jane Doe’s teeth in her stomach. They conclude she had been drugged and paralyzed while she was being tormented. But why?
The closer they get to an answer the more chaotic things get around them. They find writing on the parchment suggesting some kind of punishment for witchcraft. In one great scene, they pull aside her skin and find it has been tattooed, on the inside, with arcane symbols. Jane Doe doesn’t seem to want her secrets revealed and the chaos speeds up. The other bodies in the morgue rise, seemingly controlled by Jane, intent on stopping the men. They find themselves trapped with no way out. They figure out that Jane Doe has a long past and isn’t content to rot quietly. She has a story to tell. And keep telling.
I give this movie the highest praise by saying I hope they make a sequel. Hell, I really hope they make a prequel AND an origin story. And I usually hate origin stories.