Horror can plummet in shock value when the lurid and ludicrous plasma-puddle together. The Autopsy of Jane Doe falls, hard, when so many suffer that the frightful proceedings dissolve in a fog of prescribed-pain overdose, as if a surfeit of stupefying blood and death is needed to fulfill this flick’s midnight-movie-ness.
Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austin (Emile Hirsch) are a father-son business—the Tilden Morgue and Crematorium in small-town Virginia. Of course, each body we see them examine has an elaborate cause of death, though none more bizarrely Byzantine than the title’s unidentified corpse, a treasure box of clues and a litany of suffering. (The gender politics here are mustily predictable—that women are bound to be victims and/or vengeance seekers.)
For a time, André Øvredal’s English debut intrigues as a process film—we watch these examiners do their job, methodically, with Tommy, a recent widower, burying himself in his morbid work. (It’s CSI meets post-torture porn, really—forensic examiners try to trace the torment back to figure out not how so much as who and why.) Then, midway through, the sobering, eerie science of the mortuary lab (collecting evidence from the body, the sounds of a rib cutter, etc.) is blasted away by the occult. Enter the scary-movie clichés of closed or creaking doors in a labyrinthine old house (not to mention: the local sheriff insisting on a deadline which means working all night, sudden thunder and an approaching storm, the dead phone line, etc.).
It’s ironic that the movie’s ‘solution’ hinges on the paradox of forced empathy. After the midway point the run-and-shout plot becomes so overloaded, the kneejerk scares so overextended, and the characters’ actions so contrived that it’s hard to feel much about all this, save that it keeps lurching on, clawing towards its running time of 85 minutes.
It all begins and ends in a charnel house, but the carnage, like the scares, soon seem rote. The Autopsy of Jane Doe tries to make us feel stricken by viral-like possession, but a true horror film haunting needs depth to get under our skin, to chill us down to the bone. This one can’t leave us cold enough.
Opens Fri., Jan. 20
Metro Cinema at the Garneau, $9 to $12