Monster Fest – The Autopsy of Jane Doe

Director: André Øvredal

Yes (Cat lovers/owners be warned though)

Summary: A father and son team conduct an autopsy on an unidentifiable, naked woman found half buried at the site of a multiple murder. Things go wrong.

 

The Autopsy of Jane Doe opens in a location it will never revisit. It is the site of a bizarre multiple murder that has the town’s Sheriff puzzled. He’s even more puzzled when his men find a half buried naked corpse in the basement, with seemingly no connection to the murders. One of his officers informs him with a mix of cheese and solemnity that there were no signs of a break in, in fact there were signs suggesting the murder victims were trying to break out!!!

The opening is ominous in a couple of ways, the most worrying of which are signs of a screenplay rich in cliche. It is just as well then that director André Øvredal has the good sense to focus on the more unique aspects of the premise, most obviously the whole autopsy thing. Speaking of, the film shifts to an underground location filled with aged rooms and tight corridors. This space is framed in a particularly claustrophobic way. While we’re being introduced to the setting of the remainder of the film, we are also being introduced to two of its three primary characters. It is reasonably standard stuff. The father is struggling to get over the death of his wife, the son wants to leave town and avoid following in his father’s footsteps, but the performances are strong enough to sell it. There is jokey verbal sparring and a sense of mentorship that underlies most interactions, making the relationship and by extension the characters feel lived in and authentic.

And then the third major character is rolled through the door. Yes, the Jane Doe corpse is a character in her own right. The way she is filmed, the way the editing gives her reaction shots to the bizarre goings on, make her feel aware and consciously manipulating her surroundings despite her entirely still and expressionless exterior.

But it’s her internals that drive the mystery of the film. The autopsy sequence fleshes out the father and son characters, while piling unlikely finding upon unnervingly unlikely finding. The autopsy is approached and filmed in such a clinical way that every new reveal stands in much stronger contrast to the natural order of things. They build upon each other and lead to a climactic finding that is deliciously creepy. And the excellent sound design, including a slowly growing storm and a malevolent and teasing radio slather the atmosphere on thick. It is almost Lovecraftian in its lack of cohesion with human rationality.

And then things hit the fan, and the film shifts tactics from building tension to delivering scares. Here’s where the problems start to raise their head. While the first half of the film was a slow burn relying on incongruence, the second half is a haunted house picture that’s a little too eager to go bump in the night. The longer the film goes on the more reliant it is on highly telegraphed jump scares. The screenplay justifies it as a malevolent force toying with its victims. It’s trying to rattle them and make them suffer rather than trying to kill them. But The Autopsy of Jane Doe gets dangerously close to becoming a one trick pony. An opening is created in a surface, a character looks through it, a few seconds of silence before BOO a face pops up into frame.

It takes a genuinely tense elevator sequence and a build up to a cliche ending that is viciously subverted for The Autopsy of Jane Doe to regain its footing. This is one of a few movies that attempts to explain what the malevolent force is without reducing its level of threat. And that’s because the characters still don’t know 1) if they can defeat what they are up against, 2) if they are even right about what it is. And it’s a fun way to end a reasonably smart single room supernatural thriller.

#52FilmsByWomen 1 to 5

I’m taking up the #52FilmsByWomen pledge this year, and I thought I would also write about these movies after I have watched them. It’s one thing watching 52 films directed by women, it’s an entirely other thing to try and process them.

Keep in mind that I am ordering these films based on viewing order, not based on an assessment of their quality.

So here are capsule write ups 1 to 5!

1) A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night:
A visually dazzling black and white movie. Slow burning, dripping with atmosphere with not much in the way of narrative. It feels more like a series of vignettes set in the fictional Bad City (A city that lives up to its name). Though allegedly set in Iran, it is shot in California, adding to the bizarre otherworldiness of the film.
The titular Girl initially comes off as a quasi-feminist figure, protecting the victimised women of Bad City from the men who exploit them. Her character is coloured by her continued insistence that she is a bad person as well as her killing of a harmless vagrant for no given reason.
Unfortunately I do not have the context to be able to talk about the films A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night pays homage to, but I can say it is a striking feature debut and I look forward to more.

 
2) Honey Moon:
An unsettling and effective low budget character driven horror movie. The film is at its best when it is operating as allegory. It gets great mileage out of exploring the uncertainty faced by people when their romantic partner no longer appears to be or act like the person they remember them to be early in the relationship. Highlights can be found in scenes where one of the characters is rehearsing and memorising details of their previous life, as if they were trying to continue putting up a facade of what attracted their partner to them in the first place.

 
Unfortunately, the movie does fall over when it starts relying on more conventional horror techniques, veering into body horror and gore in the last leg, and stretching the allegorical premise too far.

 
Still, a well shot, tightly paced character study that bodes well for the director’s future.

 
3) Kung Fu Panda 2:
This movie is gorgeous. It looks absolutely stunning, is popping with style and colour, and has some amazingly staged action sequences. It is not necessarily as snappily written as the first Kung Fu Panda film, but still ends up a surprisingly mature exploration of PTSD and processing trauma. When it fires on all cylinders, it is an amazing piece of pop entertainment. In particular, the stylistic decision to have traumatic flashbacks and night terrors rendered in 2D, while “normal” memories and real life are rendered in 3D allows for one particularly gorgeous sequence when the 2D slowly transitions into 3D. It is story telling through form and elevates the movie above some of the other 3D animated family movies I have seen in complexity and competence.

 
I am honestly quite surprised that it isn’t regarded as fondly as the first Kung Fu Panda, and that so many people read Po’s struggling to come to terms with his trauma as a dumb character failing to see the obvious truth in front of him.

 
4) I Believe In Unicorns:
This film is definitely as twee as the title suggests. That said I was surprised by how honest and emotionally raw it was. It is a coming of age teen romance, and the real strength of the movie, other than its stylistic boldness, is the aforementioned emotional honesty. It really feels voyeuristic at times; I felt like I was witness to things too personal to be seen by me.

 
It is shot on 16mm with fantasy sequences shot on super 8mm. The stylistic playfulness is interesting at first, starts to become grating after a while in its utter tweeness, then veers into a surprising and dark place when the real world narrative does as well. The fantasy sequences trade heavily in stereotypically girly imagery (unicorn toys, glitter, sparklers), and serve to chronicle the main character’s desire for escapism, and her dawning realisation that her real life relationship cannot serve the purpose she wants it to.
Her prince charming, an older skater boy, is her ticket away from her depressing life taking care of her disabled mother. They initially bond over absent fathers, go on an ill advised road trip, and then their individual neuroses start revealing darker, more troubling aspects of each others personalities. She prods and pokes at his emotional scars and insecurities, inviting conflict, and he in turn lashes out with barely controlled anger and violence. Their previous, clumsy, playful exploration of their sexuality becomes more violent and desperate as the film goes on. It is a chronicle of two kids trying to play at being adults without the skills or knowledge to navigate the world, let alone each other’s company.

 
At this point I have hit what is probably the most personal, and most overtly “female” coded of the movies I have set out to watch this year. While it is stretched too thin, even at a brisk 80 minutes, its emotional authenticity more than makes up for it. Another promising feature debut.

 
5) Live Nude Girls Unite
A documentary by Julia Query and Vicki Furani that offers a unique and at times very personal look behind the curtain as the employees of The Lusty Lady unionise and fight for safer work conditions.

 
A well crafted film that is playful, angry, sad, and hopeful. It was a wonder to see the hard won battle to form America’s first Union for sex workers inspire sex workers across the country to challenge abusive work practices.

 
Julia and Vicki do a good job of quickly laying the groundwork by explaining the terminology behind unionising, as well as the situations that sex workers at various establishments found themselves facing. This frees up time for the film to focus on its characters as they deal with every loss and victory on the path to establishing a union. Each woman’s individual life experiences and circumstances are covered, and in the film’s short running time, they are all fleshed out, underlying the film’s thesis that sex work is just work, and sex workers are employees that deserve to be treated with the same respect afforded to employees in other industries.

 
Tangentially, Live Nude Girls Unite explores Julia’s relationship with her mother, a doctor who has dedicated her career to aiding prostitutes to lead a safer life. She is an incredibly passionate woman who is doing huge amounts of good with her efforts. Both Julia and her mother are striving to improve the lives and conditions of women in the sex industry, however Julia was not out to her mother about being a sex worker herself. The film gets a lot of human drama out of this, and things come to a head as they both find themselves presenting at the same conference about sex work.

 
In chronicling the struggles of the employees of the Lusty Lady, as well as the relationship between Julia and her mother, Live Nude Girls Unite explores the complexities of the sex industry, the women who choose to work in it, and feminism’s differing opinions of sex work and sex workers.

 

 

So that ends the first 5 capsules of my series. I am still sitting at 49 films on my list (and one of them is an anthology of 26 shorts, with only two of the shorts directed by women). In order to sample a wider range of voices, I have decided to hold myself to watching one film per director. That I am having difficulty identifying films directed by women, or finding a way to watch them legally with the limits placed on travelling to the far reaches of Sydney by my current living situation is something that frustrates and upsets me.

It is most definitely an unfortunate combination of my own inability to work up the effort and the limited market penetration of films directed by women, and had I the psychic fortitude to hunt these movies down, or the funds for that matter, I would have an easier time of hitting the 52 mark.

Fear(s) of the Dark

Fear(s) of the Dark is a French anthology of black and white animated horror short films.

Each of the shorts uses a different art animation style, and if you have seen anything like Halo Legends in the past, you will know what you are in for. Much like other film anthologies, the shorts vary in quality.

The film begins with a traditionally animated short that was reminiscent of the animation style of Fantastic Planet – a fantastic, surreal French Science Fiction animated feature.

After this short (which turns out to be interspersed between the other shorts) is a bizarre sequence akin to watching a Saul Bass styled credits sequence while a neurotic French woman recites all she is, was, and ever will be afraid of in your right ear. I do not know if there was an issue with my audio setup, or if it was intentionally balanced to the right channel, as the other shorts seemed to have no such issue. This short, too, was interspersed and served to act more as an intermission than anything.

A third short was a manga styled ghost story, that had the quality of a campfire story. Not particularly scary, but interesting in its imagery. Of all the animations, it was this one that stuck out, as it was the most washed out looking of the shorts. There were no deep blacks to be found. It’s not necessarily a bad thing as it feels like you’re watching the faded panels of an old manga come to life, but it did feel a little odd compared to the others.

Fourth came a short that had a similar look and style of animation to the first short. It concerned a man recounting a series of events during an early period of his life when an unknown creature was terrorising his town. It was quite well animated and was drenched in melancholy.

The shorts evoked different moods, ranging from melancholy to oppressive to sensual. Disappointingly, for a series of horror shorts, they weren’t particularly scary. The sole exception to this was the fifth and final short (my favourite) that follows an unfortunate man as he stumbles around an unfamiliar home in the dark. It is the closest to being chilling and makes perfect use of a deep inky blackness. In fact, for a majority of its run time, most of the screen is black, and the short uses outlines and quick flashes to suggest the sinister goings on in the house.

As can be expected in a series of shorts by different animators, the quality of sound design also varied. I’d say, once again, the Fifth short comes out on top with an amazingly dynamic soundscape and wonderfully ominous music. At one point the protagonist loses his shoe, and the difference in the sounds of his footsteps is amazingly realised. This level of attention to detail added immensely to the creepiness of the short. Sound is an incredibly important aspect of film, especially of horror films, and this short nailed it.

I’d say Fear(s) is worth watching if you are a fan of animation and would love to see some, at times gorgeous and mesmerising black and white animation. It works as a moody piece of experimental animation, but do not go in expecting any genuine scares. In that regard the anthology falls short.