I’ve been pretty quiet about The Autopsy of Jane Doe until now, and, I’ve got to admit, the reason is a bit odd.
I was actually one of the first people to see the film, sitting literally front-and-center at its’ Fantastic Fest premiere in Austin last year. I’d received some press releases about it in the lead up to the festival, and they’d piqued my interest—a movie set in one location, built around an autopsy, starring Brian Cox? It sounded like the sort of movie that would either be incredibly good or incredibly pretentious. A display set up at Fantastic Fest only deepened my level of curiosity: A makeshift “morgue” set up in the theater hallway, complete with a cabinet full of supplies, a chalkboard with autopsy notes, and a gruesome “corpse,” a lifelike, eviscerated mannequin laid out for limitless selfie opportunities. It was fantastic advertising, but, what did it mean? This sort of promo gimmick could mean the movie was lots of things: A hokey, William Castle-esque b-movie; a sleazy grindhouse flick; a weird, 60s roadshow style picture. Whatever it was, I knew I had to see it. So it was that I took advantage of my press credentials to get myself a seat in the screening. To my surprise, though I arrived on time, the theater was already packed with Fantastic Festians just as eager as me to see the film. Hence that front-and-center seat, when I infinitely prefer center-and-center. (Though it’s to the Alamo Drafthouse’s unending credit that they’re perhaps the only theater chain whose front-row seats actually provide comfortable viewing; but, I digress).
What followed was not just a film; it was an experience. For the first time in years, I didn’t sit in a theater and watch a movie; WE experienced it, the audience part of a collective that sat in shared unease and tension. By the time it was over, I knew that we’d just witnessed something special; and, as I watched everyone around me whip out their phones, I knew they knew it, too. Over the course of the next several days, as I wrangled with different outlets about getting the film coverage, one thing became clear: EVERYONE loved Jane Doe, and EVERYONE wanted to write about it; and, as they began writing about it, it seemed, somehow, to become less important that I write about it. It wasn’t that I felt I couldn’t say something unique; it wasn’t even that I was afraid people would read others’ reviews and not mine. Instead, it felt like, with each new review, as the film was disseminated to the world, and more people came to know about it, it somehow diluted what had happened in that theater. For two hours, we were a select group of people not seeing any movie, but one with the power to completely enrapture its’ audience. It was something special; and, very selfishly, I wanted to keep that experience to what it was. Even if I couldn’t prevent others from writing about it, at least I would hold on to my own piece.
That is very silly, though. And I recognize now that, in a way, I’ve done the film a disservice by not singing its’ praises sooner or more loudly. Something this good should be enjoyed by everyone, and all this time, I could have been another force in bringing it to public attention. Fortunately, the Scream Factory release of Jane Doe on Blu-ray is affording me the opportunity to do exactly that. So, for those who’ve missed out thus far, let’s take a look at the extraordinary creep-fest that is The Autopsy of Jane Doe.
In a way, this is your daddy’s horror movie. Virtually the entire film takes place within the confines of the Tilden Funeral Parlor, operated by father-and-son morticians Tommy and Austin (Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch), the former of whom doubles as the county coroner. This is a small, Stephen King-y town, and though it isn’t without its’ fair share of crime and deaths (both natural and unnatural), it’s fairly quiet as far as modern day small towns go. That suits Tommy just fine—he’s getting on in years, and he’d like to spend the rest of his days quietly giving the dead one last ounce of dignity. Austin, on the other hand, has no intention of following in his father’s footsteps. While he enjoys what he does—and is getting fairly good at it—he also looks to have recently turned 30, and the prospect of growing old and dying in the same town where he was born holds no interest to him. Father and son have a pretty solid relationship, though—the audience gets the idea they’ve grown even closer since Mrs. Tilden’s recent death—and Austin is fairly certain that Tommy will understand, if not necessarily like, his decision to skip town with girlfriend Emma (Ophelia Lovibond).
In fact, Austin was considering tonight to tell dad about his plans after coming home from a date, if that date hadn’t been interrupted by a very bizarre police emergency: Tommy’s best friend, Sheriff Burke (Michael McElhatton), shows up with the corpse of a young Jane Doe (Olwen Catherine Kelly), who was found half-buried in the basement of a house filled with other dead bodies. While the rest of the deaths were a catalog of gruesome ways to die, the Jane Doe herself is completely flawless. Other than the fact she’s white as ice and her eyes have an unearthly cast to them, she could still be alive. Due to the bizarre circumstances surrounding the case, Burke asks his friend to give him a cause of death by morning so that he’s got something in the way of explaining things to the press. Tommy agrees and, against his better judgment, Austin decides to break his date with Emma to help his father out. As the night goes on, the circumstances surrounding the Jane Doe’s death will grow ever more bizarre, as each new step in the autopsy reveals increasingly disturbing details about her life, and the girl seems to begin exerting a dark influence over both the men and the funeral home. By the time they decide that perhaps this is a matter best left to daylight, Tommy and Austin find that they’ve become trapped in the mortuary, and that they’ve been unwittingly roped into a confrontation with a very old—and very angry—presence beyond their comprehension.
Jane Doe is proof that there’s still room for smart horror in the world; it’s simultaneously proof that “smart horror” doesn’t mean complex metastories, trope breaking, subverting expectations, or any of the other postmodern buzzwords that pop up so often in horror journalism today. Well, I take that back—Jane Doe does subvert audience expectations in one way, in that it doesn’t subvert them. Yes, the movie is a unique twist on a particular subgenre of horror, featuring a villainess who manages to be both deadly and sympathetic without ever uttering a word or moving a muscle. (Well, perhaps one muscle; and it’s here that infinite praise must be given to Kelly, who manages the unenviable task of projecting menace while lying completely still and completely naked for the running time of the film).
Beyond that minor tweak to the familiar, though, this is simply a classic story told well. It’s easy to see this as a Hammer production in the golden age of the studio, with either Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing in the Tommy role against some young, mutton-chopped sidekick. Writers Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing know how to build tension and character with dialogue that’s both natural and interesting (and is carried off with aplomb by both Hirsch and Cox), and they know when to give the audience a payoff—and boy, are those payoffs worth it. The big scare set pieces, when they come, have been built up with such finesse and foreshadowed in such subtly creepy ways that it’s like an overinflated balloon exploding: Even if you know it’s coming, you don’t quite know when, and when it does, you’ll jump no matter what. Particularly effective is a long-gestating scare involving a type of injury Tommy discusses with Emma near the beginning of the film, and something that begins walking around the mortuary hallways when the lights inevitably go out…
Speaking of the mortuary, the sets deserve particular praise here. There’s a real authenticity to the hallways and basement of the Tilden funeral home. The low lighting, dark colors, and wooden paneling evoke the feeling of visiting an elderly relative who’s still fairly sharp, if not terribly behind the times. , The audience very much gets the impression of this being a place that’s been lived in for generations, with its’ own unspoken history, and as the building slowly turns into a monster in its’ own right—trapping the Tildens as their immobile nemesis unleashes round after round of supernatural attacks—that initial sense of safety is all the more cruel for the feeling of dread it ultimately unleashes.
Though it’s lacking any extras, the Scream Factory DVD—exclusively available through WalMart from May 2nd through June 27th—has a beautiful picture, allowing the audience to soak up even more of the sinister ambiance. If you haven’t seen the film, go and pick it up today (and I get the feeling that, even if you have, more than a few of you are headed out the door already). Get a group of friends together, turn down the lights, and don’t watch it—experience it.