Director: Andre Ovredal
Cast: Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch, Olwen Kelly
Plot: An unidentified corpse at a crime scene demands urgent attention from a father (Cox) and son (Hirsch) coroner team. But is the body more than just a body?
The quality of horror movies have gone up tenfold. Once upon a time, horror movies had a leading cast of around five disposable teenagers and multiple supporting stars beyond that. A movie monster would be introduced and the body count would go through the roof. Gore prevailed and character development was all but reduced to a few cliches. Thankfully, the genre has evolved since then and this brings us to hidden treats like The Autopsy of Jane Doe. A closed set, two prominent actors over the cacophony of disposable protagonists and good writing over trademark set-pieces.
The writing in particular: Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch play small-town coroners, tirelessly committed to their profession. They already have a few gruesome bodies to figure out the cause of deaths of. One corpse is covered in hideous burns, one woman has her eyes and mouth stitched up, one has his face blown off with a shotgun blast. However, late in the night, the town sheriff shows up with an emergency case. A house full of corpses has been uncovered, several hideous deaths littering the property. One body confounds the first responders. A buried naked girl, no marks on her body, her eyes glazed over suggesting she has been dead a long time. Yet no signs of decomposing. The father/son coroner team get to work on stripping apart the body to find a cause of death. And, for the most part, the entire feature continues with this single premise. As the two characters get further into their medical examination, a new horrific clue to the origins of the corpse is unravelled. This is where the strength of the script is paramount, because it finds the maximum amount of thrills from a film which is essentially two people bumbling around the same room. It uses horror red herrings occasionally, a family pet doubles for a jump scare, supernatural forces slam shut doors… but these are just flourishes to keep the movie ticking over. The real chills lie in the words. A part of the slow-burning fear factor is simply the still, naked body of Olwen Kelly, lying on the coronary table, her body being carved open, her eyes glaring lifelessly at the ceiling. There is a disturbing essence to the pervasion of an autopsy that director Ovredal makes fine use of. There shouldn’t be anything scary about Brian Cox drilling into a dead body, but it finds a sinister fascination through Ovredal’s direction. Perhaps it is how graphic the director is prepared to go with it. We rarely cut from scalps being pulled back, organs being removed… even having actress Olwen Kelly simply lying there, nude, for the entire film feels taboo. In the back of your head, you are aware that a director willing to show these scenes so candidly, is also prepared to go a step further when the actual horror elements kick in. However, it’s the dark history of the body that works even better than the unflinching visuals. Each layer of the script peels back a shocking revelation and that is what truly keeps you invested into the movie. Even when the horror dials up to unbearable levels, the story has swelled to a point where you are unable to turn away. Like Kelly’s dead stare, there is something hypnotic about Ovredal’s picture.
Of course, there is more to the movie than two men talking over a dead body. Before too long, the supernatural side of The Autopsy of Jane Doe comes alive and the more traditional horror tropes come in thick and fast. Some might roll their eyes at the use of a stock horror movie monster, but the truth is that Ovredal has earned the right to fall back on a safe bet by this point of the narrative. Besides, without these features, The Autopsy would lose some of its best moments. Spine-chilling moments of severe tension as calculated foreshadowing explodes into a frightening confrontation. Much like Oculus, it could be argued that The Autopsy does fall into the category of ‘anti-climatic’, It is true that while narratively the conclusion is promisingly satisfying, it would have been nice for the film to find a novel way of wrapping the film up into a neat, little bow. The closing few beats strike of a director unsure of how to end his film, so falling back on one easy option too many. However, there are a handful of twists that shock. They will not be mentioned here, but again, Ovredal saves his biggest shocks hidden in his dialogue rather than his visuals. By the time, Autopsy rocks to its chilling close, you will be forced to admit: the quality of horror movies has definitely gone up.
Final Verdict: The power is in the words, although you can hardly deny the visuals pack a scary wallop too.