I’m noticing a trope in horror films. A hard pause on the overarching threat while the leads engage in interpersonal conflict resolution. I suspect this grew out of Romero’s zombie pictures, which painted humans as the bigger monster. Shows like The Walking Dead have continued this theme.
Yet, I see it seeping into non-zombie films, often to disastrous effect. Imagine if, during Dracula, instead of rushing after the Count to save Mina, Harker pulled Van Helsing aside for a quiet sit down to apologize for not believing him earlier, explaining that it was because of his father’s overbearing nature and distrust of science.
All of which brings me round to saying I loved the first half of The Autopsy of Jane Doe.
Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch play father and son coroners. Their Virginia town is small enough that they know all their subjects by name. One night, the sheriff brings in an unidentified female corpse discovered at a grisly crime scene. The corpse appears pristine, with no obvious cause of death. The father and son set out to discover what killed her, only to face unexplained phenomena during their examination.
It’s a supernatural mystery and for the first half, it’s terrific. Packed with atmospheric dread and buoyed by Cox’s charismatic performance, it invests us in its characters then places them in existential peril.
Until it runs out of gas. The plot halts while father and son have a heart-to-heart about mom. Lots of exposition follows as the film explains away its mystery, draining its ability to frighten. Hirsch’s performance veers toward camp. The ending becomes a foregone conclusion that compartmentalizes the menace.
It’s not a total loss. The film packs some memorable visuals, and Cox’s performance will have you wishing he was in all the things. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that this one considered venturing into Beyondesque levels of existential dread and nightmare logic but opted to play it safer to appear to a wider audience. Disappointing.