Feb 032017

At first, The Autopsy of Jane Doe comes off as a sort of small town crime thriller, but it slowly evolves into what feels like a bonafide horror film.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe directed by André Øvredal. Screening at The Brattle Theater, Cambridge, MA.

Brian Cox and [] in

Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch at work in “The Autopsy of Jane Doe.”

By Peg Aloi

In horror films, we generally experience gore via violence; in other words, blood flows at the moment we see injury inflicted. Films that feature extensive post-mortem images of dead bodies do exist (think of the little-seen but thoughtful arthouse thriller Kissed with Molly Parker and Peter Overbridge), but normally these visuals can be found in crime procedural shows such as CSI, which specialize in giving us corpses up close and personal. The sterile, scientific environment can mitigate, for some, the visceral response sparked by viewing a dead body that has experienced violence. Of course, some viewers find the sight disturbing in any context. In this stylish new what-dun-it from filmmaker André Øvredal, the mysteries behind a young woman’s death are explored with surgical precision, accented by plenty of weird goings-on and disturbing discoveries.

Jane Doe (“played” by Olwen Kelly), a beautiful young woman, is found dead, buried beneath the floorboards of a house. Three other bodies found at the scene may or may not hold clues to the reasons for her death. The autopsy is performed by a father and son team, Tommy and Austin Tilden (the last name may be a reference to characters in Sam Shepard’s play Buried Child), who run a home-based old school morgue and crematorium business.

Played by Into the Wild star Emile Hirsch and the ubiquitous, multi-faceted Scottish character actor Brian Cox, the two have a friendly working relationship, somewhat complicated by the recent death of Tommy’s wife and Austin’s unrevealed plans to move away with his girlfriend (Ophelia Lovibond), who has become fascinated by Austin’s work and gets a bit too close to the business. The film perhaps tries a bit too hard to make us like these figures, perhaps a reaction to the usual popular culture portrayal of medical examiners as uber-geeks or lonely social misfits (though the CSI franchise rebelled against those stereotypes with its super-glamorous characters).

As the autopsy progresses, unusual findings challenge Tommy’s experience and excite Austin’s curiosity. Jane Doe’s bones are shattered, her lungs burned, and her organs scarred, but the outside of her body is clean and devoid of any marks indicating trauma. As Tommy colorfully observes, “It’s like finding a bullet in the brain, with no gunshot wound.” Further revelations include traces of herbs (which Tommy researches in old herbal compendiums) and fabric covered in occult symbols. Evidence of sexual torture and ritualized bondage add to the puzzle, and Austin surmises that her murder was a type of human sacrifice. I can’t call this a feminist film in any way, shape, or form; the grotesqueries visited upon this woman’s body are, please be warned, disturbing. In the horror genre, the naked female form is often the site of gruesome crime. This tendency will not change any time soon. The absence of strong female characters is somewhat annoying as well.

At first, The Autopsy of Jane Doe comes off as a sort of small town crime thriller, but it slowly evolves into what feels like a bonafide horror film. The dark wood interiors of the house, along with the somewhat dingy vintage condition of the Tilden’s lab, makes for a suitably atmospheric setting, helped considerably by an encroaching thunderstorm. One moment we seem to be approaching Hammer Horror territory, the next suggests Criminal Minds. The film’s hybrid form, its genre ‘identity crisis,’ intrigues.

The film’s pacing and energy ratchet up steadily, but the use of standard horror techniques, such as jump scares or gruesome reveals, is kept to a surprising minimum. Eventually, the action’s trajectory hits an ultimately satisfying (if a bit exhausting) state of all-hell-breaks-loose.  Yes, some of the plot elements are somewhat implausible, but it is hard not to respect the level of research that girds the film’s intriguing details; too often these days facts are glossed over in an effort to keep horror audiences enslaved to cheap startle scares rather than the chills of more deeply-engaging psychological terror. Overall, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a satisfyingly spooky film that blends several sub-genres together: there are resonances with serial killer, occult/ritual crime, and sexual mutilation narratives, as well as tonal homages to classics by Hitchcock, Romero, and Craven, among others.

The film’s creative team lends solid skill-sets to this impressive indie effort. Øvredal, a Norwegian who directed Trollhunter (a fascinating and hilarious fake documentary with astonishingly good special effects), works from a script by Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing, who collaborated on the recent series Dead of Summer; Goldberg worked on Criminal Minds and Once Upon a Time. I liked the moody music by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, who previously collaborated on scores for Enemy and Martha Marcy May Marlene, which, if you haven’t seen them, are a pair of artful, nuanced, and wonderfully creepy films. The Autopsy of Jane Doe is not subtle, and some may find its realism and intensity to be unpalatable. But horror films have become so formulaic these days that it’s refreshing, even exciting, to see something that defies categorization.

Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She has taught film studies for a number of years at Emerson College and is currently teaching media studies at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews have appeared in Art New England and Cinefantastique Online, and she writes a media blog for Patheos.com called The Witching Hour


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