J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Autopsy of Jane Doe: Forensics Get Macabre

The tradition of using “John” and “Jane Doe” as anonymous monikers dates back to late Fourteenth Century English estate law. Typically, “Does” are either identified or forgotten, but the one that lands on the slab at the Tilden family-run mortuary and morgue is about to get Medieval on her examiners. The father and son are in for a frightful night when they start incising her body in André Øvredal’s aptly titled The Autopsy of Jane Doe (trailer here)—a Wednesday opener in New York, just in time for Christmas.

Upstairs, a seemingly normal family has fallen victim to an apparent triple homicide. In the basement, an otherwise pristine naked corpse lies half buried, with no obvious cause of death. The sheriff wants answers, so he asks crusty old Tommy Tilden to put a rush on the mysterious woman’s autopsy. To help meet the deadline, his lab technician son Austin will postpone a hot date with his girlfriend Emma.  In retrospect, that will definitely be a mistake.

As the Tildens start cutting into the Jane Doe, their findings only raise more questions. Her wrists and ankles were savagely broken and her organs were singed, but there are no outward signs of trauma. Around the time they start finding foreign objects in the mystery corpse, things start going bump in the night at the Tilden morgue.

Presumably, Autopsy was a simpler, more intimate production shoot than Øvredal’s Troll Hunter and perhaps even his dystopian short film The Tunnel, but it is devilishly clever “chamber” horror film. Just the concept of taking the terror to the morgue (presumably where most horror movie victims wind up) is a subversive twist. It is also rather amusingly ironic (in the right way) to see the original Hannibal Lecter, Brian Cox, playing a perfectly sane coroner. Frankly, the mounting unease of the first half is probably better than the supernatural woo-woo-ing of the concluding balance, but overall, it is a pretty nifty dark-and-stormy-night movie.

Cox might not sound like a Virginia country coroner, but it hardly matters. The sort of piercing intelligence he projects on-screen is more important. He also forges some appealingly comfortable chemistry with Emile Hirsch (as Austin). We immediately pick up on their years of shared family history and the sort of shorthand they developed from years of working together. They also look believable puttering about the autopsy lab. In unconventional support, Olwen Catherine Kelly is chillingly believable as the unblemished Jane Doe, thanks to extensive yoga and meditation training. Maybe she should tackle Beckett’s Not I next.

A lot of nice production design work went into the Tilden Morgue. However, the lighting sometime is too dark to properly show it off (at least via the medium in which we saw it). Regardless, Autopsy is a creepy film, with genuinely memorable, multidimensional co-leads, which is saying something for the genre. Highly recommended for horror fans, The Autopsy of Jane Doe opens Wednesday (12/21) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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