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'The Autopsy of Jane Doe' Is One of 2016's Best Horror Movies

The Autopsy of Jane Doe

When your shift is up, go home. That’s a lesson we could all learn from watching movies. Things rarely go well for the person who decides – and it’s always at the last minute – to stick around just a little bit longer. They may as well be a young soldier showing someone a picture of their pregnant wife before going off to battle, or a cop calmly declaring he’s just a few days away from retirement. 

But for as familiar as the ‘I shouldn’t be here’ setup may be, rarely do things go as horrifyingly off the rails as they do in The Autopsy of Jane Doe, one of the best horror movies of the year.

Directed by André Øvredal (Trollhunter), The Autopsy of Jane Doe is about a son (Emile Hirsch) who blows off a date with his girlfriend to help his coroner father (Brian Cox) examine a corpse that arrives under mysterious circumstances. Not only is the body without a name, but it’s better preserved than any exhumed body in history and it has no obvious cause of death. So the father-son duo get forensic and break out the scalpels and bone saws.

And then the horror starts. As the pair literally peel away the corpse’s secrets, supernatural things start happening around the morgue and they become trapped with an enigma that becomes increasingly dangerous as the night grinds on.

What separates The Autopsy of Jane Doe from many horror movies is Øvredal’s ability to keep things intimate while still telling an original story that is much, much larger than its characters. In his debut film Trollhunter that size is way more literal, whereas here it’s way more psychological. What’s actually happening has implications that extend well beyond the unfortunate duo that uncover the truth. A lot of movies these days are afraid to give answers and seem to save further explanation for a sequel or prequel. That’s not the case here. The source of evil becomes quite clear, and it’s a smart, original and frankly freaky idea.

The only real weakness of The Autopsy of Jane Doe is something both frustrating and yet necessary. Writers Ian B. Goldberg and Richard Naing have crafted a compelling mystery, after all, so they can’t just spell out everything up front. However, the lack of established rules occasionally undermines the tension. When anything can seemingly happen it takes you out of the element. Those few moments of ‘wait, what?’ confusion are thankfully outnumbered by more than enough genuinely earned, fantastically crafted scares, but they do distract.

It certainly helps that the film’s co-leads make for a great duo. Brian Cox in particular is utterly terrific here. He brings such instant warmth, compassion and edge to the role, once again proving that he’s one of the secret weapons of genre movies. Cox is the kind of actor who embraces genre material the way Donald Pleasance and Christopher Lee once did and his commitment to the macabre makes every horror movie better.

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