Horror is an unusual genre, awash with trash made quickly with budgets blown on all the wrong aspects or so badly acted, poorly conceived, or just badly executed. Those gems where everything comes together are universally incredible, whether it’s because the film carries a message like the gothic monsters of old like the Babadook managed to do, or it does something radically different to your average horror like changing the nature of the protagonist or the methods of applying terror. Some manage to simply be good horror films without pushing the boat out very far, like Mr Jones.
Here’s a film that takes a rather different approach, while hitting a few classic themes rather elegantly. The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a horror film in reverse, because the horror has already happened, indeed our first scenes are of the grisly bloodbath in the unassuming suburban household. The evil has been put down, nothing but a body in the cellar, and we begin with a pair of morticians digging through the aftermath. Our first act is spent uncovering the unusual circumstances of the unidentified girl’s death, and the sheer determination with which she was killed.
Here I dare not say more regarding the story, I went into this blindly and I think that enjoying the discoveries that the morticians made alongside them was far more enjoyable, plenty to keep you guessing as the fear unfolds. Fear is built up through subtlety to begin with, the visceral sounds of the dissection, little intentional incongruities layered upon the obvious ones, the claustrophobic setting backed with brilliantly intense camera work.
As for acting, the father-son combo of Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch is fantastic, two men who are infrequently leads in their respective titles. Their relationship becomes increasingly believable through little actions and looks, all sold through a professional veneer of teacher and student. [Minor Spoiler] This reaches a pinnacle with the death of the cat, where father gently snaps the poor thing’s neck and takes a moment to grieve in front of the incinerator while the son watches helplessly [Spoiler over] it’s a touching scene that lends realism to our protagonists, and gives grounds to separate the duo long enough to rebuild the tension curve.
I love the montage that sets up the morticians office giving us a shortlist of the elements that will ultimately be used to traumatise our protagonists. The lift, the trap that will lock them within the narrow space; the mirror in the corner, a simple security device turned into a weapon of perception; the photos, symbolic of a relationship that will be cut to shreds. In fact those all-important first ten minutes are some of the best set up work from any horror I’ve ever seen… or maybe I’m getting more observant the more films I watch, who can say? A few cheap jump scares, nothing overplayed, some high quality tension-play between Hirsch’s girlfriend (Ophelia Lovibond) and Cox’s benevolently creepy character.
Oh there’s some failings, that’s for sure. There are some moments of heavy handedness, such as the worsening weather, the some unnecessary flickery lights, badly transparent clichés here and there that you’d normally ascribe to bad story telling, and The Autopsy is a long way away from topping any horror film listings (except anything from the year in general) but it’s plunged deeply into something that I have never seen done before, and certainly not so well. Even the usage of the mirror is nothing original but it is well executed.
This is a short review because I want people to watch this film. It does everything good horror should do, tragedy, claustrophobia, helplessness, toying with perception, and on top of it all it brings something different to a rather familiar story. All in all it’s a film that’s worth setting time aside for, a real study of the genre that more people need to see.