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'The Autopsy of Jane Doe' Delivers on the Shivers -- Until It Decides to Explain Things

When it works, it works magnificently. When it doesn't, it only has itself, and it's overreaching screenplay, to blame.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe

Director: André Øvredal
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Brian Cox, Olwen Kelly
Rated: R
Studio: IFC Midnight
Year: 2016
US date: 2016-12-21 (General release)
UK date: 2016-12-21 (General release)

The undisputed king of body horror is David Cronenberg. From early examples of the strange subgenre (Shivers, Rabid) to his most famous offerings (The Fly, Videodrome), the Canadian auteur has pursued a path that offers chills and thrills, but very few explanations. Sure, the entirety of James Woods' experience in terror from the TV may be the result of a tumor growing in his head (or something like that), but part of that movie's manic fun is never knowing what's happening, and how you are supposed to react to it.

The same can be said for the equally effective English language debut of Norwegian director André Øvredal's The Autopsy of Jane Doe -- at least, up to a point. Best known for his fascinating found footage examination of his homeland's folklore, Trollhunter, this intense slice of splatter gets a lot of mileage out of a very sparse premise... and that's the problem. Once the movie decides to add layers of explanation and exposition, the tables turn. What was once fascinating becomes forced, what appeared to be an exercise in tone and mood moves into clunky conclusions that will only confuse viewers.

There's been a massacre in a small Virginia town and police uncover the body of a young woman (Olwen Kelly) who becomes the "Jane Doe" of the title. They find her half-buried in the basement of the crime scene. Though seemingly unharmed, the cops need to know what happened to her, and so they take the corpse to local coroner and morgue owner Tony Tilden (Brian Cox). Along with his son, Austin (Emile Hirsch) the pair begin the bloody process of parsing through the post-mortem, discovering unusual things along the way. For one thing, the body appears burned... on the inside only. Her bones and organs are also broken, twisted, and terrifying.

At first, the Tilden's believe that some sort of ritualistic sacrifice has occurred, but for the first hour or so of The Autopsy of Jane Doe, answers are not important. We are given an inherently spooky setting (a morgue at night), a weird situation that belies its own level of comfort (the pristine body hiding horrific details) and the standard "bump in the night" noises and moments that create both instant jump scares as well as an underlying sense of doom. Just as the dread is amplified, just as we come to appreciate the distress we're feeling, the script by Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing has to go and justify what is happening, and it is here that The Autopsy of Jane Doe falters.

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Without spoiling anything, a bit of it makes sense, but a lot of it doesn't. Øvredal is skilled enough to never quite lose us 100 percent, but as Cox and Hirsch go from physicians to paranormal experts, the movie's fortunes lag. Granted, there's a great deal of gore here, and for those not keen on splatter, most of the first part of the movie will be a challenge. But when trying to make sense of the situation at hand, The Autopsy of Jane Doe goes from sinister to schlock. It's still a film worthy of watching, but what could have been a classic becomes less so once we learn what is (supposedly) happening here.

Fans of the genre are used to such a story structure. We get two acts of set-up, followed by a finale where Hell typically breaks loose. For many, what The Autopsy of Jane Doe tries to do in its conclusion will not sully all that came before. It's too good of a film, and the story is too well presented, to produce a total failure. But again, why does horror have to have an explanation? Sure, you can chalk it all up to a demon, or a restless spirit, or some cosmic creep-out called "The Further", but such a payoff is not always needed. In this case, it bamboozles things, making us wonder if all the jitters we experienced before were just wasted.

Again, it's not a complete loss. The Autopsy of Jane Doe is too well made and well acted for that. It's also full of the kind of frights that make fans giddy. Indeed, during a relaxed conversation between the father and son, the concept of "the bell" is introduced, and at that moment, lovers of all things "reanimated" will feel a familiar jolt jimmy up their spine.

Thankfully, Øvredal's able to keep this seeming cliched material fresh and fun. The same goes for the investigative aspect of the story. We relish each new discovery, hoping it leads to another... and another... and they do, for a while, but then The Autopsy of Jane Doe kicks into overdrive and, by doing so, loses some of its strength. Still, in a year which saw many amazing titles, including The Conjuring 2, Ouija: Origins of Evil, The Witch, Lights Out, and Don't Breathe, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is equally welcome. When it works, it works magnificently. When it doesn't, it only has itself, and it's overreaching screenplay, to blame.


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