I’m going to be up-front about my biases here: any movie that plays the Gratuitous Animal Death card gets on my shit list and has a whole lot of digging to do to get out. Not only do I just not like seeing animals die onscreen – or offscreen, for that matter – but I think it’s the horror equivalent of a Hallmark movie – a cheap and insultingly obvious bid for emotional investment that never, ever works to the benefit of the movie. The Autopsy of Jane Doe plays that card early on, and while I admit that the topic was handled with more respect and care than is usual for horror movies, it put the movie ten strokes down and nine to play, and in the end, the movie couldn’t afford to lose the points.
Now, I hate writing that. It sucks that I didn’t like the movie more than I did, because my love for Brian Cox knows no bounds and Emile Hirsch was fantastic in what might have been a pretty thankless role. And crazy applause is due to Olwen Kelly, playing the eponymous Jane Doe, not only for having the sheer physical stamina to lie naked on a metal table for umpteen days of shooting, but for the skill involved in making Jane’s blank, milky stare look more and more malevolent as the movie goes on.
(While I’m handing out plaudits, here’s one for whoever decided to use that horrifying “Open up your heart and let the sun shine in” song as a running theme. It was grotesque in the movie; then I looked up the lyrics and it was one thousand times more awful. And I found it on grandparents.com, which asserted with a straight face that “the only thing happier than this song is hearing all the lyrics crooned by your grandkids.” If my grandkids started singing it, I’d be on the phone with an exorcist in less time than it takes a nanny to jump off a roof with a noose around her neck.)
My issue was with the second act, when I thought the movie went off the rails. It starts out looking like it’s going to be a formidable movie. Jane Doe is found half-buried in the basement of a bloody crime scene. She gets sent to the makeshift morgue in the basement of the Tilden funeral home, a setup so weirdly sprawling that it looks more like it was intended to be an underground bunker that could hold the whole town in the event of a nuclear bomb. Cox and Hirsch are a father-son coroner/medical technician team shaken by the recent death of Cox’s wife, ordered to find a cause of death for Jane Doe by morning. The problem, of course, is that as the autopsy proceeds, fewer and fewer things add up, and the number of things that seem flat-out impossible grows.
I would have loved the first half of the movie if it hadn’t been for the aforementioned Gratuitous Animal Death, and I nearly loved it anyway. Autopsies, as puzzles to be solved, fascinate me, and The Autopsy of Jane Doe goes full-bore into the technicalities. I loved the characters, even if I never quite managed to become invested in the whole dead-mother grief plotline. I really, really wanted to know what was going to happen.
Then, as Cox and Hirsch start to actually figure things out, the movie spun into a place that left me squinting at the screen and going “…But why, though?” Why are the dead in the morgue suddenly walking? What are they trying to do? What was the purpose of that one scene in the elevator, and how, from a logistical standpoint, did it even happen? I feel like half of the Things Intended to be Scary could have been cut out and the movie would actually have been scarier. (One bit toward the end, involving the ghastly song previously discussed, was a hundred times more horrifying and effective than anything else that had happened in at least the last half an hour). Cox and Hirsch suddenly turned into Exposition Bros, and the explanation for what was going on left me feeling inexplicably unimpressed and dissatisfied.
In short, I think this was a movie with amazing potential that suffered from a second half in which the director seemed to just give up and throw horror movie tropes at the wall to see if something would stick. It’s entirely possible, though, that this is one of those movies that gets better with subsequent viewings.
So what’s the verdict? It took me a long time to decide on this one, just because of that second half. Four stars, but if it had had lesser actors it would have been a three-star. Do I think you should see it? Yes. But it’s not unproblematic and the whole last half would have benefited from a tighter hand and more coherent writing. There are four producers and three executive producers (and one co-executive producer, whatever that is) listed on IMDB, which is never a good sign. I’m curious to see what the director’s cut will look like.