Autopsy of Jane Doe: Great Until It Wasn't
Written by Joseph Martin
Let's start with the elephant in the room. IFC Midnight productions have no middle ground between cheap exploitation (such as The Human Centipede and its equally unnecessary sequels) and brilliantly subtle thrillers (such as The Babadook). From only a trailer, it can be difficult to discern which category 2016's The Autopsy of Jane Doe would fall into; however, my personal belief is that it lies in the second.
First of all, the plot is fairly straightforward. An elderly father and his college-aged son, second and third generation coroners, are charged with performing an autopsy on a mysterious unidentified corpse found at a murder scene. However, the process soon leaves them with more questions than answers. As the night progresses and they begin uncovering the cadaver's secrets, violent supernatural happenings prevent the pair from reaching any concrete answers.
From a technical standpoint, it's very well done. The contrast between the two main indoor sets- the funeral home and the morgue- is striking. The morgue is bright, clean, and clinical; there is no hiding anything (or hiding from anything) in this space. The rest of the funeral home's basement is so old and dark you can nearly smell the must coming off the sculpted carpet through your television screen. This gives the opposite effect of the morgue: sure, you can hide. But what's hiding in the dark along with you?
In creating the environment, additional kudos should be given to the props and foley teams. Props, from the father's crumbling books and vintage radio to the mangled corpses of a burn victim and a man who was disfigured by point blank gunshot wounds, are beautifully realistic. So much so that you feel you can almost reach out and touch them (not that you would necessarily want to, especially in the case of our poor burn victim). The foley team deserves special recognition for making this film a creepy and uncomfortable watch. Every cut, clatter, heartbeat, and bone shatter is so clearly heard it may as well be felt.
With one noticeable exception, the cast is fairly standard. Brian Cox as the elderly Tommy and Emile Hirsch as the troubled young Austin are a convincing father and son, and they carry the script well. Don't be fooled, though, the true star is Olwen Kelly as the titular Jane Doe. Her performance can be compared to Sir Anthony Hopkins in 1991's The Silence of the Lambs- despite having little to no role in the script (Kelly never once utters a word or even moves of her own accord), she is the one who captures your attention during the film and haunts your mind afterward.
My only complaint with the film delves into the realm of spoilers, so if you have not yet seen the film, proceed at your own risk.
After a certain point, the plot is a retelling of 2014's Oculus. For those of you not familiar with that title, a brother and sister spend one night in their childhood home in the hopes of destroying a cursed mirror. The mirror, however, causes them to hallucinate vivid images of deception and violence, imprisoning them in both the house and their minds. Now, replace the brother and sister with a father and son, and exchange the mirror for an equally cursed corpse. Not only is the function of the cursed object the same- causing hallucinations intended to scare those affected into murder and/or suicide, but the pattern of kills is the same: the first to die is the family pet, followed by a character accidentally slaughtering their significant other, finally, the main character deliberately kills their one remaining family member. Though the endings are different- Tim survives and destroys the mirror but is charged with his sister's murder, while Austin is survived by the evil spirit inhabiting Jane Doe- enough of the plot is similar that it begs questions. Are these merely tropes that happen to have been used in the same succession, or was the entire plot recycled? Personally I prefer to doubt that the film includes intentional plagiarism, but the two are similar enough to be off-putting.
Regardless of the above criticism, I do recommend the film. Trigger warnings for animal death, gore, flashing lights, and mentions of sexual assault and human trafficking are necessary. Lovers of jumpscares like myself will find just enough to stay entertained, while those more opposed to jumpscares will not find too many. Ultimately, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a fun watch that hopefully points to a promising future for both IFC Midnight productions and for director André Øvredal.