In the world horror critique, the very best moments are those when low expectations are shattered. When a film crushes expectations through innovative story telling, fantastic artisanship and brilliant delivery, it makes the slog of hammering on keyboards worth the trouble.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) presents an interesting case. Directed by André Øvreda. In some aspects, André’s film clearly breaks new ground; however, in many ways it fails to capitalize on its early gains. Eventually it fails to reach escape velocity and tumbles back to earth. Regardless, The Autopsy of Jane Doe deserves critical consideration and probably deserves a look.Synopisis
Written by Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing, The Autopsy of Jane Doe starts with a simple premise. The police drop a body off at a small ton coroners office. The officer demands an cause of death by morning. The coroner and his son soon being a journey into madness as their investigation leads to terrifying secrets involving ritual sacrifice and witchcraft. Brian Cox delivers an expected solid performance as Tommy Tilden, the patriarch of the coroner family. Emile Hirsch plays the coroner’s son, Austin Tilden, who makes the fateful mistake of staying in to work with his father instead spending the night with his girlfriend.
Where Autopsy Shines
Øvredal’s film swiftly progresses from the mundane day-to-day of a coroner’s life into a foreboding storm of supernatural intrigue. The director does a tremendous job creating tension with nary more more than a dead body lying on the table. Slowly, André Øvredal reveals bits and pieces agonizing, yet methodical pace. Our hairs raise and our spines bristle, with little more than a pale white body being carved on a table. More than once, the revelations of the investigation bring forth a “gasp”. We would love to say more but not trying not to spoil the fun.
One of the stronger moves by the production team concerns the alabaster body of Jane Doe. Rather than use a lifeless rubber model, Olwen Kelly plays the part of Jane Doe. Believe this, Olwen puts on a legitimate performance appearing dead while two men prod her with tools. As she lays there on the table, one can clearly see the former beauty and vitality in the corpse. However, through the cloudy lenses of her eyes, an inescapable aura of evil spills forth. The end effect is a movie monster that evokes sympathy during the very moments it reigns terror on the Tildens.
Øvredal tells the tale in essentially two acts pre-revelation and post-revelation. The first act intends to build the tension to a painfully high altitude before dropping it into freefall for a horrifying finale. He fully achieves his goals for the first half of the film. It’s the second half that ultimately leaves an unresolved taste in the mouth.
Where it Dims
The problem with André Øvredal’s film is that it is nearly impossible to bring his film to a satisfying conclusion. Much of the first half consists of suspense and suggestion. He manages to coil the spring tight enough to sneak a couple of gratuitous jump scares in the mix, but overall the audience is consumed with mystery of Jane Doe. When Jane’s the story pivots from violent crime, to ritual witchcraft Øvredal’s audience reaches the pinnacle of unease. Unfortunately, to make his threat real, the centerpiece of the film must move away from autopsy table to the rest of the environment.
Once the bodies start moving, all of a suddenly the mystery evaporates into thin air. The film loses its purpose, and fills its void with standard zombie fare. That’s not to say that there is nothing to behold in the second half, it simply means that what is there is less that what came before. It leaves the realm of supernatural mystery and becomes a slightly non-standard monster movie. Trying again not to reveal too much, the final revelation of Jane Doe really doesn’t pull together an intellectually satisfying picture.
The grand finale simply goes out with a whimper; eventually leading to a boring epilogue that features the police piecing together the details of the night before.
Comparing it to a Masterpiece
The film Lake Mungo (2008) takes a similar two act path. It spends the first half of the film telling the story of a distraught family after the untimely death of their daughter, Alice Palmer. Director Joel Anderson slowly ratchets up the tension with the periodic and unsettling sightings of Alice throughout the film. Where Anderson excels over Øvredal is that he refuses to take his own bait. Instead, he continues to raise the temperature until he finally releases it in a final scare that causes goosebumps to roll up the spine and stomachs to drop to the floor.
Imagine how our perception of Lake Mungo would change if instead Anderson had the ghost of Alice chase her family around Lake Mungo…
Sometimes being a horror critic requires being critical. The fact that we are critical of The Autopsy of Jane Doe should not be taken to mean that it is a bad movie. In fact, we feel quite the opposite. From a pure creativity perspective, André Øvredal and the writer of the film create something extremely unique. The image of Olwen Kelly lying on the table remains haunting long after the final frames of the film. The early sequences of the film are riveting, which each clue expanding the mystery more than resolving it.
As discussed earlier, the ending presents a missed opportunity to leave the viewer with something unsettling and profound. Still, André Øvredal manages to keep the audience interested, it just feels less satisfying than it could have been. We used Lake Mungo as a measuring stick when rating the Autopsy of Jane Doe. It felt like maybe the writers ran out of ideas. We’ll use the abrupt change in tone, and the wandering epilogue as evidence. We felt that Lake Mungo was much tighter in narrative and much more decisive in execution.
If you haven’t seen The Autopsy of Jane Doe, you should. It is a highly entertaining film that MOSTLY blazes its own trail. Despite its deficiencies, Malevolent Dark thoroughly enjoyed the film and recommends it for casual and hardcore horror fans.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) - The Agony of Being Dead - Malevolent Dark
Director: André Øvredal
Date Created: 2016-01-01 12:00