Warning: Contains spoilers.
In those long ago ‘pre-Covid’ times, one of the great joys of a September trip to the cinema was watching trailers for all the year’s new horror releases. But I’ll admit to having a complicated relationship with movie trailers in this particular genre. The core of a good horror film is the slow building of suspense; when a trailer packs all the big jump scares of the movie into 90 seconds, it threatens to ruin the whole experience. Outside of the big-ticket Conjuring franchise style, studios have learned this; trailers often serve more as teasers, a few frames of uneasy atmosphere that hint at the film’s mysteries rather than serving up a neatly plated premise. Horror, after all, often needs to surprise in order to unnerve.
The downside of this approach is that sometimes an eye-catching trailer leads you to a movie that fails to deliver. With The Autopsy of Jane Doe, it all starts off so promising. Our two leads are Emile Hirsch and the mighty Brian Cox, who has made an art form of the enigmatic father figure in HBO smash hit Succession. A morgue is hardly a ground-breaking choice for a horror setting, but the family-owned Mom & Pop Chop Shop depicted here, in the basement of a heritage building last renovated sometime in the ’70s, is a nice contrast to the generically institutional look of most horror hospitals. I can’t help but think this film would have been more powerful if it had constrained all the action to this dark, subterranean space, letting its inherent claustrophobia reflect the psyche of the two men trapped within it. Instead, the film opens with a crime scene walk through we’ve all seen a thousand times before, a mysterious unblemished corpse, and a mirror of the ending so unsubtle that it is less foreshadowing than an in-movie spoiler.
The strongest moments of the film come when it does what it says on the tin, closely following the regimented process of an autopsy, focusing each frame on the body on the table and the dehumanizing effect of her examination. Fans of the horror genre will be familiar with its use of the female form as a canvas, a vessel for our fears to be materialized. The best modern horror with a feminist lens both acknowledges and subverts this trope. In Autopsy, the naked female corpse is the centrepiece of a story, initially as a voiceless symbol of some heinous crime. The men around her possess all the agency; she is merely a focal point for their efforts. So far, so expected. But the clinical yet voyeuristic eye of the camera, the dispassionate handling of the body and the unflinching depiction of her evisceration still manage to feel jarring. Gradually, the creepiness of the corpse is superseded by the unsettling revelation that what the film’s protagonists view as a lifeless shell may in fact possess an inner power beyond our understanding. In her silence, Jane Doe defies classification; she is demonstrably a force for evil, but Cox’s coroner nonetheless goes out of his way to reframe her as a victim, made dangerous by society’s efforts to repress her. There is some interesting thinking here about how women are damaged by projected anxieties; sadly, it’s mostly lost in the half-baked dialogue. The mortuary team’s ‘discovery’ of Jane Doe’s origins, for instance, is revealed through a hilariously formulaic conversation that could have been plucked from a failed pilot of CSI:New England.
Once we pull our gaze away from Jane Doe, it all falls apart rather quickly. We sprint through a gamut of horror movie cliches: Unnecessary pet death! All the lights go out! There’s a bunch of smoke now for some reason! The film knows the power of the hidden monster, using the conceit of the mortician’s bell and the shadow under the door to good effect in one of the first post-blackout scenes. But it cannot resist the temptation to have our animated corpses show themselves, and no amount of mottled skin and mouth stitching can make the CGI walking dead genuinely scary in 2020. In the tradition of the classic haunted house, the supernatural functions as a metaphor for the dysfunctions of the family within it. But this film’s construction of Hirsch as a young man trapped by familial obligation feels flimsy. Exposition around the family’s backstory — dead Mom, hints at her suicide — is dropped clunkily into the action at random moments, so we never really engage with the characters on an emotional level. When Cox finally takes an axe to his son’s girlfriend, our protagonists appear to care for approximately 30 seconds, which is 29 seconds longer than I could muster as a viewer.
As the two gents run around saying silly things to each other and bumping into zombies in the mist, Jane Doe remains consistently silent, still, expressionless. Horrors like the Paranormal Activity series and Netflix hit The Haunting of Hill House have trained us as viewers to search for the ghosts in the background. Here, the camera teases us with the corpse on the table until we are almost willing it to move, to reward our attention by making us jump. That she never does is one of the film’s greatest achievements, an exercise in cinematic restraint… that is, until the last scene. The thoroughly unnecessary last scene, where Jane Doe is, entirely preposterously, being transported on a gurney with no body bag. She is a corpse that we have established holds momentous power but enacts it only externally, that would never stoop so low as to become a lumbering zombie. Who would have remained most powerful if our last sight of her was the perfectly intact flesh, luminous under the morgue lights, all the revelations unearthed from beneath her skin somehow undone even as a fresh set of investigators loom over her. But instead what we get is… jingle jingle. The sound of a promising set-up that has lost its way.
Verdict: An exercise in hope and frustration. Two screams, and one of those is of RAGE at the stupid last scene.