Thursday, 15 June 2017

The Autopsy of Jane Doe

Director: André Øvredal
Writers: Ian B Goldberg, Richard Naing
Producers: Rory Aitken, Fred Berger, Eric Garcia, Ben Pugh
Cast: Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch, Olwen Kelly
Country: UK/USA
Year of release: 2017
Reviewed from: DVD screener

The Autopsy of Jane Doe was directed by a Norwegian and is set in the USA, but most sources – including the US distributor – list it as a British film. The IMDb disagrees and says it’s a UK/US co-production, while Wikipedia describes it as fully American (as do, interestingly, the BBFC).

It is a joint gig between two production companies. The minimalist and Adamsian 42 is certainly a British company, based in London, comprised of producers Eric Garcia and Ben Pugh. They were also involved in the production of Monsters: Dark Continent and The Other Side of the Door. Impostor Pictures is based in LA so yes, this is an Anglo-American feature. Should I include it in my British horror master list? Well, I think it feels more British than American – possibly because of the European director – so I’ll consider it a British film made with some American investment rather than the other way round. Plus it was shot over here and it stars veteran Scottish actor Brian Cox. Sold!

With all that malarkey out of the way, what is it about?

Tommy Tindell (Cox) and his son Austin (Emile Hirsch) run a family crematorium/morgue/autopsy service from the converted basement of their house. Is this a thing? Are there places like this in America? Over here, any autopsy is going to be done in an NHS hospital and crematoria are usually managed by the church. But apparently in the States the two are combined in a business that runs effectively out of somebody’s parlour.

The local Sheriff (Irish actor Michael McElhatton: The Hallow, Ripper Street) brings in an unidentified body. She was found naked, half-buried in the basement of a house, the occupants of which have died in gruesome ways, with no sign of forced entry. Bereft of distinguishing features and with no fingerprint match, this Jane Doe body is the best clue as to what happened, and the Sheriff would like cause of death determined tonight so that he can face the press tomorrow (a premise which doesn’t exactly sound believable; murder investigations take as long as they take).

So autopsy technician pere et fils set to examining the body, taking us through the four stages of clinical autopsy: external examination; heart and lungs; digestive system; brain. What they find makes no sense. The woman hasn’t a scratch on her, yet she has some horrific and bizarre internal injuries, as well as certain foreign bodies inserted into her.

While they’re doing this, spooky things start happening. Which get spookier and scarier and more violent and dangerous and swiftly pass the point where they can be dismissed as anything other than supernatural. These phenomena must relate in some way to the mysterious dead body, but how and why? I won’t go into any detail, just say that the revelation of what is happening is quite clever and original, albeit kind of a spin on a very old horror trope.

Though I enjoyed the film, I have a problem with it, which is this. All the spooky, scary stuff is kind of random. There are indistinct figures in reflections, doors open by themselves, strange noises. There’s no pattern and it’s all just general spooky weirdness which doesn’t specifically relate to anything either on screen or subsequently resolved. In short, it’s impossible to tell from what’s going on… what’s going on. It’s all done a lot better than, say, The Haunting of Radcliffe House which was just daft. But I would have liked to have seen a pattern, something which gave us and/or the Tindells a clue as to what is actually happening.

It’s not a spoiler to say that the Tindells do eventually work out what’s actually happening, although I’m not sure there wasn’t something of a leap of logic there. Plus some of their actions are less than logical. At one stage they start a fire. This gets quite scary because of the supernatural stuff that happens to the flames but there didn’t seem to be any justification for starting the fire in the first place. When you’re in an enclosed, underground environment, a fire is the last thing you want.

That said, the script (by two guys who wrote episodes of The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Once Upon a Time) and direction (by the guy who made Troll Hunter) are both pretty good. The father and son relationship is well-handled by both script and the two actors, although an early bit about Austin talking with his girlfriend (Ophelia Lovibond: Guardians of the Galaxy) about wanting to leave home rather than continue the business goes precisely nowhere and has no effect on the narrative. I spy the stump of an excised subplot.

Brian Cox is very good, as one would expect. His genre CV goes all the way back to The Year of the Sex Olympics and takes in Hammer House of Horror, The Ring, X-Men 2, The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep, Trick ‘r Treat, the 2009 Day of the Triffids, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Pixels and of course the original Hannibal Lecktor (sic) in Manhunter. He played Sydney Newman in Doctor Who drama An Adventure in Space and Time, he narrated The Colour of Magic, and he was Daphne’s father in a couple of episodes of Frasier.

Emile Hirsch starred in the swiftly forgotten 2008 Speed Racer movie and has been in a bunch of other stuff including, at the start of his career, episodes of Kindred: The Embraced, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Third Rock from the Sun. Video game voice artist Jane Perry and Parker Sawyers (Monsters: Dark Continent) play supporting cop roles.

But the break-out star, as it were, is Irish actress Olwen Kelly who plays the naked body on the table, remaining utterly motionless throughout every shot. Apparently she drew on her experience of yoga and meditation. She is now making Dom Lenoir’s serial killer thriller Winter Ridge. As the autopsy progresses, a mixture of astute camera angles and superb prosthetics by special effects supervisor Scott McIntyre (Tank 432, Estranged, White Settlers, The Quiet Ones... Pudsey the Dog: The Movie), presumably assisted  by some digital doodaddery from VFX supervisor Stephen Coren (Ghost Machine, 28 Weeks Later), enables us to see Ms Kelly opened up on the table.

With production design by Matt Gant (Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes) and cinematography by Roman Osin (The Rezort).

After a premiere at Toronto in September 2016, The Autopsy of Jane Doe was theatrically released in the States (and Latvia, apparently!) in December. In March 2017 there was a one-night only UK release co-ordinated by Frightfest. DVDs appeared on both sides of the Atlantic three months later.

I enjoyed the film but possibly the effusive praise it received from festival screenings may have raised my hopes too high. As for some of the comments warning of how visceral and gory this is, one does have to wonder whether some critics have seen any horror films before. Nevertheless this is an original and enjoyable 80-odd minutes of supernatural horror, worth a watch.

MJS rating: B+

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