Collins’ Crypt: The Low-Key Greatness Of THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE

BC's got your new favorite movie to watch around Halloween.

As much as I love the Halloween season, I'm often kept too busy with screenings and various work (some of it related, thankfully) to really enjoy it like I used to. For example, last year I think I managed to watch ONE horror movie at home just for the fun of watching one, the pumpkin carving was done without me, and I don't even think I ever made it to a proper Halloween party. So rather than wait until I can start the day with Count Chocula or whatever (i.e. midway through September, roughly) to start celebrating, I decided that I'd get things going now, and spent a good chunk of this past Saturday building a Lego Haunted House (from this series) and watching a Saw marathon on cable. If I had a cup of hot cider, or if I didn't have to have the AC running on high because it's August in Los Angeles, it'd totally feel like an ideal day in October, the kind I never get to experience during the actual month anymore.

But it wasn't my increasingly depressing amount of free time that inspired this early celebrating - it was a revisit of The Autopsy of Jane Doe, which I saw last year (in October!) at Beyond Fest and instantly dubbed it not only a great horror movie in its own right, but an ideal selection for horror-loving fans to watch at "this time" of the year. Not that I make the rules or anything, but I never quite got the people who watch things like The Shining or Martyrs or whatever because it's "October and I want to watch my favorite horror movies", as those films (and many others I see being given similar endorsement year after year) don't really fit the spirit of the holiday. Yeah, they're scary/disturbing, but Halloween to me is more of playful and spooky kind of season, which is why I prefer rewatching the likes of Vincent Price or old Universal Monster movies, as well as more modern things like Insidious or Lights Out, than hard-R entries like those. Even the Saws don't really fit, but they all come out in October (unlike the Halloween films, the last five of which have come and gone before their namesake holiday) so the "if it's Halloween it must be Saw" nostalgia made them qualify just enough for my mood (plus, they were just ON, so it also qualified for my desire to be kind of lazy). Basically if the movie bums me out, it's not exactly the sort of thing I want to watch when I'm trying to recapture fond memories of being young and responsibility-free enough to fully dive into the seasonal joy - I'm already bummed out enough it doesn't happen naturally!

If you're not sure the kind of mood I'm describing, just watch Jane Doe and I think you'll get it. The plot is admirably simple: an unidentified corpse is brought to a pair of coroners (a father and his son) to determine the cause of death, and then they're trapped with it when a raging storm knocks the power out, preventing escape from their basement lab. I didn't watch with a stopwatch, but the bulk of the film is more or less told in realtime as the coroners (Brian Cox as Tommy and Emile Hirsch as Austin) work on the body, constantly discovering new and unexplainable things, like scar tissue on her organs. I wouldn't dare spoil any more particulars, but one of the many things I enjoy about the movie is that the "Autopsy" of the title isn't misleading in any way - the father and son duo continue to work their coroner magic throughout the film all the way to the climax, rather than have the autopsy just be what kicked off a presumably more exciting premise. Like a good mystery, the intrigue of what's really going on more than makes up for the fact that you spend a good chunk of the runtime looking at Bryan Cox and/or Emile Hirsch peering over a corpse.

Speaking of the corpse, props must be given to Olwen Catherine Kelly as the title character, who puts Terry "Bernie" Kiser to shame and moves not one muscle on-screen in the film. We don't know Jane before she died, and by never showing any signs of the life she might possibly still possess, she literally spends the entire movie motionless - no easy feat for an actor at all, but director André Øvredal (Troll Hunter) doubled down on the challenge by having her remain unclothed for the bulk of the film as well. This is not exploitative; a corpse would indeed be uncovered for their autopsy, and I wouldn't want to speak to anyone who saw this at titillating. But without a shirt or pants, Kelly had to hold her breath so we couldn't see her chest go up and down, or even scrunch up her toes or something that your ordinary on-screen corpse (i.e. a fully clothed one) might get away with should they be on-screen for long periods of time and having to remain perfectly still for the camera. The IMDb "goofs" page for the film has plenty of continuity and other mistakes that sharp-eyed viewers caught ("When Austin writes the roman numerals on the board they look different in the close-up from those seen in the wider shot"), but no one has seemingly been able to find an instance of Kelly breathing or anything like that.

As for the more lively performers, they are also quite good. Cox has been a "get" for any genre movie since he introduced (some of) the world to Hannibal "Lecktor" in Manhunter, putting in much loved supporting performances in the likes of Trick 'r Treat and The Ring, but this is (I believe) the first time he has toplined a horror film, and he is, as you'd expect, quite good. There's a certain weariness to his character, who we learn lost his wife fairly recently and is grooming his son to take over the family business so that he can presumably retire, but he's still spry and giving full attention to his job instead of phoning it in. As for Hirsch, it almost seems like the role was written for someone a bit younger (odd considering the age gap between the two actors is nearly forty years), but it's nice to see him play a normal person again after a run of more eclectic performances. 

But even more appealing than the two leads' performances is that the father and son are written as buddies, something you rarely see in a movie at all, let alone a horror film. Austin has some ambitions that lie beyond dissecting bodies for a living (and a girlfriend who is egging him on to leave the nest), but he's clearly not all that eager about leaving his father and also seems genuinely interested in the business as opposed to sighing his way through his fathers' requests like you might expect. When the shit hits the fan he's even more gung ho about finishing the autopsy than Tommy is, and he is responsible for as many discoveries as his older, more seasoned father. And again they actually get along and are affectionate toward each other, always nice for me to see as I get frustrated, as a father, seeing my beloved horror genre populated with so many bad/MIA dads; there's one moment where Tommy gets a bit cross with Austin and it actually kind of hurts to see when they've been getting along so well. Even when something happens about an hour into the movie that you'd expect to drive a wedge between them, they stick together and avoid any typical cliches, opting to let cooler heads prevail. I honestly can't recall the last time I saw this approach in a genre film, and I encourage any filmmakers that might be reading to follow the lead of Ian B. Goldberg & Richard Naing's script and embrace the idea that moviegoers might actually enjoy seeing people that care about each other in their horror films.

And yes, this is indeed a horror film. I don't want to get into specifics because I think the less you know about the movie, the better (in fact, I skipped writing a review during its minor theatrical release for that very reason), but Øvredal and his writers do not try to pull a fast one and go the "psychological thriller" route. I would comfortably describe the film as "macabre", a sadly rare tone in modern horror, and for the most part it feels more like a feature length Tales from the Crypt movie than the actual Crypt movies that were released. I would be willing to bet that if someone had only seen a handful of Crypt episodes and I told them there was one about two coroners trying to determine the cause of death on a very mysterious corpse, they'd believe me easily, whereas I don't think they'd ever associate "A biblically charged battle over an ancient relic" or "A From Dusk Till Dawn wannabe with evangelists for some reason" with the traditional kind of "Tales" they'd see*. If I may make a general spoiler (pausing for you to skip ahead now......), Jane isn't the only corpse we see in the film, so it's not like the film is all sunshine and rainbows, but the tone isn't a downbeat or malicious one, it's just that same general kind of ghastly mischief that you'd see in a William Castle production.

For all that and more I encourage you to add this underseen gem to your Halloween viewing rotation. It's a shame Scream Factory's disc is barebones, as I would have loved an interview with Kelly and/or commentary with the filmmakers, but you can get the film on VOD and the like, minimizing your investment compared to a full-priced disc with no added incentives. As long as it's legal, check it out in your preferred format and you're likely to agree that it's the kind of movie that's tailor-made for this time of year, combining genuine scares with some levity (Cox gets to upstage his own "You gotta be fucking kidding me..." from Trick 'r Treat with another choice reaction line) and a devilish charm that would make Vincent Price proud. I know most folks like to just return to their favorites for Halloween (come hell or high water I will find time for at least one Michael Myers adventure, and one Price/Poe/Corman entry), but it's important to welcome new blood into the fray, and if you share my views on the sort of movies that feel most at home with the spirit of the holiday, then this one definitely deserves to join your current lineup.

* For the record, I quite like Demon Knight, but it just never felt like the 90 minute Crypt episode I had imagined, at least on a narrative level - though it's got a similar darkly humorous tone at least. Bordello of Blood is just garbage no matter how you slice it.

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