The morgue truly is a fascinating place if you can stomach it. It’s always a cliche to depict a goth with a morbid curiosity becoming obsessed with dead bodies on slabs, but actually the artistry behind coroner work is much less about a fascination with the dead than with the intricate ways in which our bodies operate and eventually decay. Apparently director Andre Ovredal also understands the educational importance of dissection and autopsies, because the first half of his film The Autopsy of Jane Doe is literally a training exercise in coroner work – a lifelike depiction of the scientific poking and prodding of a dead body, wherein the characters treat the unknown dead woman as a scattered puzzle needing the pieces put back together. The other half is a spooky supernatural storyline set in a morgue. And for the avid horror viewer, both parts make up a solid film that fascinates, spooks, and forces the audience to question its characters’ validity.
Ovredal does a lot of setup in the film’s first moments, introducing the main conceit – a dead woman (Olwen Catherine Kelly) found in pristine condition in the basement of a house where a massacre has taken place – and the two coroners who will be working on her body throughout the entirety of the film. Tommy (Brian Cox) is the head coroner at his family-owned morgue, and he’s been training his son Austin (Emile Hirsch) on the art of autopsies even though Austin’s not sure he wants to continue the family business. The film’s first scenes are darkly humorous, lightening the mood in the morgue to show the normalcy of working on dead bodies; along with that, Ovredal is careful to give the audience a grand tour of the underground morgue area, an important feature to the film’s plot later.
But most important to The Autopsy of Jane Doe is the character development from writers Ian B. Goldberg and Richard Naing, aided by excellent work from both Cox and Hirsch. While the film never explicitly explains the relationship between Tommy and Austin, it becomes clear as the film progresses that both of them have been deeply affected by Austin’s mother’s death, an event that the audience can presume was suicide through context. It explains Austin’s reticence to leave his father alone, and it also adds some depth to Tommy’s obsession with cause of death – almost to the point where nothing else about the dead matters.
That becomes a huge focus once Jane Doe is wheeled in on a gurney for dissection, a woman whose internal organs map a series of torturous acts while her external features are perfectly preserved. As stated before, Ovredal spends a lot of time on the outer portion of the autopsy as Austin and Tommy begin to reveal strange subtleties to the body – a corseted waistline, a tooth wrapped in a ritualistic shroud in her stomach, the presence of fractured wrists and ankles despite no evident surface trauma. It’s all observed with such clinical detail that it almost becomes a doctoral training video, and while some viewers may not appreciate the slower, methodical pacing in these moments, others with a curiosity about the human body and forensic work will certainly find a lot to love in these scenes.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe really kicks into high gear in its second half, though, as paranormal occurrences begin to manifest in the morgue. First it’s just the ticking of a faulty air vent or the unfortunate death of Tommy’s cat; but as a thunderstorm rolls through the area and the lights blow out, it becomes clear that something more sinister is at work, especially when Tommy and Austin find the same ritualistic patterns tattooed underneath Jane Doe’s skin.
There’s some excellent tension in these dark moments as Austin and Tommy run through the hallways of the morgue, and that’s aided by Ovredal’s careful direction and walkthrough at the beginning of the film. The morgue is a creepy place, and it helps that Jane Doe – despite her witchery – continues to lay on the slab, splayed open with vacant eyes staring off into space with a defiant expression on her face. Morgue slabs open, their bodies missing; the bells tied to dead toes chime softly as they ring down the hallway; a creepy smoke scene finds Austin and Tommy running through a cloud to get to the safety of the autopsy room. It’s all very eerie and expertly directed, and The Autopsy of Jane Doe truly manages to get under the viewer’s skin.
The conclusion is a bit muddled, however, and perhaps the only real flaw in the film. Goldberg and Naing leave the film open to interpretation, allowing the viewer to decide whether the events truly happen or if they were all a hallucination in the characters’ heads. Either way, the inner workings of Jane Doe – whether imagined or real – are poorly explained, and the finale feels as though the writers were unsure how to end the film. It’s a small nitpick in an otherwise excellent film, and because of the ambiguous ending viewers are free to ignore the minute intricacies that might detract from the experience.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a refreshing dissection of the horror genre, taking an otherwise mundane experience and adding witchcraft to create an uneasy scenario. Ovredal’s direction heightens the suspense, while both Cox and Hirsch put in great performances as a father/son duo. Even Kelly shines in a role that basically asks her to lie still and naked on a slab. For fans of good practical effects and eerie paranormal thrillers, The Autopsy of Jane Doe does both with surgical precision.
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