In the folds of our skin, the space underneath our fingernails, and the composition of our organs, the human body holds secrets and clues to the lives we have lived. From the food we ate, the injuries we’ve sustained and the scars that remain, the vessel through which we experience everything about being alive, leaves a record of our existence before we pass to whatever comes next. The idea of centering a movie, operating as part-horror film and part-procedural, around that idea is a pretty good one. Unfortunately, “The Autopsy Of Jane Doe” is a pretty bad version of that concept: a dull, rote, and completely predictable picture that flatlines from the first moment.
Set entirely within the confines of a family-run morgue and crematorium, the film follows father-and-son medical examiners Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austin (Emile Hirsch). In the business for years, Austin seems poised to take over the business, but has dreams of doing something else, a detail he hasn’t yet shared with his father. But of course, before he can mention it, and just as he’s about to leave for the night, the Sheriff wheels in a fresh corpse, one that’s a bit more of a puzzle than the usual bodies that hit the slab from their small town. Still dedicated enough not leave his father working alone on the last-minute gig, Austin blows off a date with his girlfriend Emma (Ophelia Lovibond), throws on some scrubs, and pulls the gloves on tight. And from the minute they start looking at Jane Doe’s hair and eyes, they realize they’re going to be in for a very long night.
At least initially, ‘Jane Doe’ appears like it’ll play like an extended, much more gruesome episode of your parents’ favorite cable crime series. Tommy and Austin start cutting into the young woman’s body on their table, and as they peel back layer after layer, and go deeper into the cadaver, what they uncover gets increasingly confounding. Rigor mortis curiously hasn’t set in, despite Jane Doe being found buried in a basement; the ankles and wrists of the young woman have been shattered but there’s no visible bruising; and perhaps most shockingly, the tongue has been severed. And that’s just the start of the grisly discoveries that are made, and as the night goes on, they’ll leave more chilling questions than answers…at least until things start going bump in the night.
Taking place across one evening, and set entirely in the morgue, the script by Ian B. Goldberg (“Once Upon A Time,” “Joy Ride”) and Richard Naing manages to sidestep the pitfalls of many single-setting films by creating relatively organic reasons why the characters must stay in one location. Otherwise, though, the screenplay fails to conjure horror elements that are compelling or original. Once the supernatural specter makes an appearance, “The Autopsy Of Jane Doe” becomes every other jump-scare horror movie you’ve seen for years and years now, with all the standard tropes: lights that suddenly go out; disturbing imagery; spooky hallways; and, in the case of this film, a half-baked mythology that, of course, leaves the door open for sequels. And while that latter detail likely helped make the sale to producers, they could’ve done themselves a favor by rounding up something resembling a decent budget.
Director André Øvredal (“Troll Hunter”), making his English-language debut, is clearly forced to contend with meager resources, with ‘Jane Doe’ often looking chintzy, particularly when it comes to the special effects. But perhaps worst of all, there’s no sense of a directorial stamp on the material. Øvredal feels largely anonymous behind the camera, not adding much visual flair or any kind of indication that this couldn’t have been helmed by any other journeyman genre filmmaker. This translates to the scares being constructed with a routine approach that dulls their effectiveness, which only makes the already overly familiar nature of the story and its structure play at an even more sluggish pace. Featuring one predictable twist after another, there are few if any moves ‘Jane Doe’ makes that you won’t have seen coming, making for a particularly torpid viewing experience. Even Cox and Hirsch seem to be going through the motions, sharing an easy chemistry, but also not really bringing much more to their roles than what’s already on the page — though given the thin material, that would’ve been a tall order anyway. That ‘Jane Doe’ managed to earn their attention in the first place is a feat that’s perhaps more surprising than anything that happens in the film.
Not every horror flick has to reinvent the wheel, and there are plenty of movies that operate within well-worn territory, but still manage to find inventive and fresh creative angles (see the ‘Conjuring‘ pictures, for example). But ‘Jane Doe’ never aspires beyond the ordinary, and more crucially even fails to meet that modest standard. Lifeless and lackluster, ‘Jane Doe’ never draws blood. [D]