We are almost halfway through our K-O-Ween 31 Days of Halloween feature. For day 14 we will be taking a look at André Øvredal’s first proper horror movie The Autopsy of Jane Doe.
Apparently André Øvredal was inspired to make The Autopsy of Jane Doe after watching The Conjuring. Of course, André Øvredal was, by that point, already known for his breakthrough Found Footage hit Troll Hunter. Troll Hunter was a big success and comes highly recommended.
Øvredal wanted to make an actual horror movie and The Autopsy of Jane Doe was the result. As always I will begin with a summary of the movie’s plot. Feel free to skip that if you like but it is free of any significant spoilers so no risk there.
We are reviewing a horror movie a day for the entirety of October 2022 leading up to Halloween. Most of these reviews will be shorter and more straight to the point than my standard format. We will feature a range of movies from horror classics to international hits and a few indie darlings. You can check out the entire K-O-Ween feature by clicking right here.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe opens with a group of police digging in the basement of a crime scene. A number of people have been killed in the house and the body of a young woman is partially buried in the basement. There is no evidence of forced entry in the house and it looks as though the victims were attempting to escape.
We next head over to the local coroner where father Tommy, played by Brian Cox, and son Austin, played by Emile Hirsch are finishing work. Austin has a date planned with his girlfriend Emma and is about to head out when Emma, played by Ophelia Lovibond, suddenly arrives.
Emma, out of some morbid curiosity, asks Austin to show her some of the dead bodies. Austin’s father pushes Austin to show her one so he pulls the corpse of a murder victim out of a freezer. Emma notices a bell on the ankle of the dead person and Tommy informs her it is an old technique used to identify potential coma victims. He claims he is old fashioned before using the bell to scare Emma when she goes to remove the blanket from the face of the deceased person.
Emma and Austin go to head on out but, on the way, they pass the local Sheriff coming into the building. He is bringing the corpse of the girl from the aforementioned basement and needs a cause of death urgently. He is worried that journalists will be all over the crime scene and will be wanting to know who died and why. Austin, thinking his Dad will need help, calls off his date and asks Emma to come back later.
The body is that of a young woman in her mid to late 20s and appears to be in very good condition. Her eyes are cloudy which suggests she has been dead for a number of days. The pair begin performing the autopsy only to discover a number of irregularities. She has shattered wrists and ankles but no external damage. Her waist is extremely small sized. She is missing a molar and her tongue has been cut out in a non-surgical manner.
As the autopsy goes on, Tommy discovers more and more irregularities. Determining a cause of death becomes difficult as the injuries she has don’t match up with the external condition of her corpse. All of a sudden, strange things begin to happen. The radio station changes randomly. The pair hear screaming coming through the speakers. The song “Open up your heart and let the sunshine in” keeps playing. The lights flicker randomly and Austin believes he sees someone in the hallway. As the night goes on, things become even more bizarre. A storm grows more ferocious and it becomes increasingly clear that there is more to this Jane Doe than meets the eye.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is an excellent first attempt at horror for André Øvredal. For much of its runtime it is an extremely atmospheric movie that will have you on the edge of your seat. The film opens slowly and is in no real rush to get anywhere. There is an attempt at a jump scare within the first 10 minutes but this is more to set the mood.
Both Austin and Tommy are experienced coroners and not intimidated by the environment that they are in. They should have no reason to be scared so the movie has to work hard to give them a reason to be. The plot is left to bake and is not at all forced; at least for the first two thirds of the movie, anyway.
The first half The Autopsy of Jane Doe feels a lot like a psychological horror. The story is the most important thing and everything else takes a back seat. Scaring the viewer is secondary to creating a tense atmosphere and enveloping the person watching in the environment of the coroner’s building. It’s clear we are being set up to have our senses rattled but it develops very slowly. As strange things begin to happen, you really feel how claustrophobic of a venue the coroner’s building is. It is maybe not as small as you may think though most of the action takes place at the autopsy table. The building having only a lift to reach the exit adds a lot to the atmosphere and tension. It is apparent that the director wants the viewer to feel trapped along with Tommy and Austin themselves.
Much of the first half of The Autopsy of Jane Doe is focused on the autopsy itself. We are introduced to the Jane Doe knowing the same amount about her as the coroners do – nothing. We learn more about her at the same time as Tommy and Austin. This is a fantastic way to build tension as you never really know what the next revelation will be and how the story will progress. It takes awhile for strange events to occur but, when they do, the slow build of tension has you on edge making the scares more effective.
Revelations about the girl come in slowly and each one adds a little more to the unfolding plot. Although it is pretty obvious what has happened to her it is still incredibly interesting to follow along. Events are delivered with no sense of urgency and the slow burn works perfectly.
Naturally, there is an element of body horror as one might expect when watching a movie about an autopsy. The autopsy is presented in graphic detail and the Jane Doe is actually played by a real person – Olwen Kelly. Expect full frontal female nudity for the entirety of the movie. There is also graphic autopsy procedures such as cracking ribs and removing organs. If either of those things don’t appeal to you then you may want to give this a miss. The decision to use an actual person was, in my opinion, an inspired one. It lends the movie a feeling of authenticity rather than the hokeyness that would have come along with a prop.
For the majority of the movie we see Olwen Kelly lying on the slab. For actual autopsy shots prosthetics are used. The prosthetics are, for the most part, pretty great. The body parts look very realistic and somebody obviously had a hell of a time in the foley studio. There are a couple of scenes that do look a little strange. These scenes are usually shot from further away, though. The close up shots are very effective body horror featuring the removal of damaged lungs, a scarred heart, and other vital organs. It is really well done and is sure to make a few of the more squeamish viewers feel a little nauseous.
There are a couple of scenes featuring some severe injury detail that are particularly nasty. The practical effects are fantastic throughout and the effects department should be commended for their efforts. There isn’t anything that stands out as being particularly bad but there is a lot that is extremely good.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe features an experienced cast who do a fantastic job. Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch have a believable dynamic as father and son. They are both likeable and will make you laugh on a few occasions. You feel for them with what they have to go through and Emile Hirsch does a decent job of projecting emotion.
It would be impossible not to mention Olwen Kelly as the Jane Doe. Okay, she just lies on a table for the entire runtime. To do that, however, completely naked in a room full of production crew is a task in and of itself. It’s a brave performance. It is worth pointing out that I never noticed her breathing or twitching throughout. Apparently she was hired due to her ability to control her breathing and movement. This is a skill she developed through yoga. I am sure her good looks played into it at least somewhat but she is more than up to the task.
Cinematography is great. There are some creative shots using mirrors and cracks in doors. Scenes are set up very well and you never once feel as though you are watching a small budget horror movie. The claustrophobic environment of the autopsy room is the perfect setting for the events that occur and the lighting and sound production only add to the scares.
On a first watch I absolutely loved The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Honestly, I would probably be considering rating it a 9 out of 10. I was that effusive about it. On a second watch, however, I found myself disappointed at the way the movie comes apart in the final act. It’s not as if it becomes awful, it just becomes very generic. It devolves from a fantastic, slow burn horror that plays with the viewer’s mind into a generic jump scare fest with some illogical events and an abrupt ending.
It’s worth pointing out that André Øvredal wanted to make this movie after seeing The Conjuring. I think this shows somewhat in the final third. It’s far closer to generic American Hollywood pop horror than anything else and this is disappointing. The jump scares are formulaic, it becomes entirely predictable, and the pace accelerates to the finish line. I would have much preferred to keep the slow pace and send the movie off in the way it deserved. The very final scene completely sums up The Autopsy of Jane Doe’s transformation from slow burn masterpiece into generic pop horror perfectly.
I don’t think will be a major issue for a lot of people. I actually think there are more people that will dislike the slow burn nature of the first half. The initial lack of scares may put a few people off, as well. This is a film that tries to cater to both groups of fans. It may, however, end up putting each side off with the way it starts as a slow burn thriller before turning into jump scare horror. I really believe the movie is still worth watching but it could have been so much more.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe, at least for it's first two acts is a gripping, intense, slow burn horror of masterful production. It is scary, tense, and incredibly atmospheric. The compelling plot draws you in and you are eager to find out what happened to this mysterious woman and where she came from.
Acting is fantastic, Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch create a believable father son dynamic and Olwen Kelly's brave performance as a corpse must have been incredibly taxing but she never flinches once. Cinematography is great and the setting of the coroner's building is suitably claustrophobic and oppressive.
A jump scare filled final act does not manage to pay off what was a fantastic slow burn horror, however. The movie devolves into a Hollywood pop horror with plot holes, predictable scares, and an all too quick pass ending. The initial lack of scares and slow pace may put some people off whereas the rushed ending may upset viewers who enjoyed the film's initial slow burn. Still entirely worth a watch and a very good horror movie that could have been a masterpiece.