Friday, November 01, 2019

"The Autopsy of Jane Doe": review

[NB: spoilers.]

I was going to do myself a double feature last night and sit down to both "The Autopsy of Jane Doe" and "Midsommar," but I ended up having energy for only one movie. It's been like this ever since I got back from my walk, and it's probably because I've spent the past month waking up around sunrise. Still, last night was Halloween night, so I decided to treat myself to "Autopsy," a movie about which I'd heard and read good things. As per usual, when it comes to horror flicks, I went in wondering whether I'd find myself actually tense or frightened, actually jumping during the jump-scare scenes, and actually leaving the experience both entertained and traumatized, possibly having nightmares.

Short answer: nope. I found myself laughing during some scenes, as always happens these days when I watch horror. I also found myself predicting every jump scare (which meant I didn't jump once), and I was even able to anticipate important aspects of how the movie was going to end, mainly because I had already seen "ParaNorman," which served me, at least, as a template for what was to come. I didn't predict the dénouement, but the film's ending was just a darker, grimmer, more adult version of the ending of "ParaNorman." That said, I don't think "Autopsy" was a bad film; it had an entertaining story and some kind-of creepy moments, such as the big, horrific reveal when the morticians peel back a large portion of the corpse's skin toward the end—and the other horrific reveal when the two finally examine some of the body's brain tissue and discover something so shocking that it temporarily leaves them wordless.

Directed by André Øvredal in his English-language debut, and starring Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch, Ophelia Lovibond (ill-fated Carina in "Guardians of the Galaxy"), and Olwen Catherine Kelly as the corpse (she was apparently chosen for the role because her knowledge of yoga made it easier for her to play dead for extended periods), 2016's "The Autopsy of Jane Doe" is the story of a father-son team of morticians, Tommy Tilden (Cox) and Austen Tilden (Hirsch). They're morticians in a small Virginia town who are about to close up shop one night when the sheriff arrives (Michael McElhatton, whom everyone now knows as Roose Bolton on "Game of Thrones") with the corpse of an unidentified young woman (Kelly). Her body had been found buried in the basement of a home in which a multiple murder had taken place. The killings have a strange aspect about them, and the overall impression of the crime-scene investigators is that the people had killed each other while also attempting to escape from the house. What relationship the corpse might have with the other bodies is something the sheriff is itching to find out: the press is demanding answers, so the woman's COD (cause of death) must be determined that very night. Austen cancels his date with Emma (Lovibond—what a surname!), asking her to come back later. Emma is curious about what her boyfriend does for a living. When she surprises him by meeting him at the morgue before the arrival of the mysterious woman's corpse, she gets a creepy tour of the basement autopsy room and even manages to see a body, with Tommy's wryly grinning permission. Emma learns about the old tradition of tying a bell to the toe of a corpse just in case the body wasn't actually dead. This is Chekov's toe bell, of course, so the viewer knows the bell will play a major role in events to come.

In true horror-movie fashion, the father and son are left alone as the sheriff and Emma leave. Night falls. Per the usual cliché, a nasty storm is announced on the radio, and it soon plays havoc with the building's electricity. Tommy and Austen begin the autopsy with an external examination before proceeding to the internal exam. As they work, disturbing, poltergeist-like phenomena start to occur around them: the radio keeps flipping back to a song titled "Let the Sun Shine In," which references the Devil; doors open and close of their own accord; blood starts to seep out of the refrigerator where certain body parts are stored. The autopsy itself gets weirder and weirder: the corpse's eyes are clouded over as if the body has been dead for days, but other signs seem to suggest the young woman had died only recently. Still other indications creepily imply that the woman's body might actually date back to the 1600s, and father and son begin to realize that they are messing with dark powers that should never have been provoked. Eventually, we reach a point where the other corpses free themselves from their drawers and shamble about the house, sometimes with no visible purpose, and sometimes to do violence. Tommy and Austen are left to reason out the what and the why of these frightening events, and they eventually conclude that the young woman actually is from the 1600s, kept alive by a sort of dark, satanic magic that preserves her flesh and keeps her conscious in some way so that she feels all the horrors inflicted upon her—burial in a basement, being cut open and having organs removed, etc. Tommy hits upon the crux of the matter: in old Salem, during the time of the witch trials, the girls accused of witchcraft had all been innocent... but what if the black-magic ritual performed on this young woman had actually turned her into a sort of witch? All of the paranormal activity occurring in the morgue could then be seen as a function of the witch's revenge against those around her: she wants them to feel her suffering.

While I won't spoil the ending of this movie directly, I will say that it did have a lot in common with the ending of "ParaNorman," a movie in which kids face off against a witch whose malice and fury are rooted in her pain and torment. The ending of "Autopsy" also calls to mind the ending of "The Exorcist," but not in quite as positive a way. In "The Exorcist," Father Karras allows the demon possessing young Regan to enter into him, and he then throws himself out a window to smash his mortal frame and give the demon nothing more to latch on to. In William Peter Blatty's novel The Exorcist, Father Karras dies satisfied that God exists because He must if the Devil certifiably exists. "Autopsy" contains a somewhat similar moment of self-sacrifice, but the end result doesn't go so well for our heroes. It's implied that, when one character implores the witch to focus her fury on him alone, he is unable to bear the agony, and because he is unable to bear it, the centuries-old curse on the witch herself cannot be lifted, and her pain (plus, by extension, her need for revenge) must therefore continue.

I liked the story in "The Autopsy of Jane Doe," but I can't say the movie did a very good job of being scary. We're never quite sure whether the reanimated corpses in the morgue are merely optical illusions or the real thing; the movie gives us evidence for both notions. The movie's opening scene, in the aftermath of the multiple murder, turns out to be a harbinger of what fate will befall our two morticians. Director André Øvredal needs to work on how to do a good jump scare because, unfortunately, he kept telegraphing those moments long before they actually happened. The movie also employs some painful clichés: the dark and stormy night, or the creaky elevator that stops functioning while it's between floors, or the power going out at inopportune times. These were all laugh-out-loud moments for me.

One of the better aspects of the story, though, was that it didn't give us the one cheap thrill I'd been expecting throughout the entire plot: I kept thinking that, at any moment, the young woman's body was going to spasm back into life and attack our heroes with a zombie's feral hunger. Instead, the movie does a good job, through action and implication alone, of making us believe that (1) this seeming corpse is in control of all events, and (2) the Devil is somehow also present as things unfold. This show-don't-tell technique is an important counterbalance to what is otherwise a very talky plot: father and son are constantly thinking out loud, and 99% of their dialogue is expository.

The movie's final moment is corny as hell, but I suspect that that was a deliberate wink slipped in by the director to let us know that the story of this young woman isn't over. All in all, I came away entertained by "The Autopsy of Jane Doe," but it was a bit disappointing that the movie didn't do more to scare me. The cutting of flesh, the sawing of bones, the ginger handling of internal organs—these actions might bring with them a certain gross-out factor if you're sensitive to that sort of thing (I'm clinically fascinated by all that stuff, so the guts and gore didn't bother me in the least), but if you can handle the grossness, then there's little this movie will offer you in terms of spookiness. Watch it for an interesting story, and forgive it when it clumsily tries to frighten you.

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