Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team will program films and contribute our best, most insightful, or most creative thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.

The Pick:

For people of a certain age, one of the shared formative moments of horror fandom was the discovery of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books. Written by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell, the three Scary Stories books collected dozens of terrifying tales compiled from folklore, local tall tales, urban legends, and Schwartz’s own knack for twisted little bursts of horror.

Banned and protested across the country ever since their release, the books have nonetheless retained an iconic status in the hearts and minds and nightmares for those who grew up with them. After all, who could ever forget that spider bite?

When it came time to craft a feature film version of the books, we wondered who would bring the exact right touch to somehow wrangle these bite-sized tales of creeps and freaks into a full-length movie, without sacrificing what made Schwartz’s prose and Gammell’s drawings so indelible.

André Øvredal put a lot of minds to rest. With his first two films, Trollhunter and this week’s pick, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Øvredal has more than demonstrated a knack for folding folklore into kinetic, sometimes gruesome, horror filmmaking.

Jane Doe opens with the discovery of a gruesome murder scene, a seemingly happy family apparently suddenly devolving into brutal murder and suicide. Things only get more mysterious with the discovery of a young woman’s naked corpse half-buried in the basement. The local sheriff (Michael “Roose Bolton” McElhatton) brings ‘Jane Doe’ (Olwen Kelly) to a local mortuary run by father Tommy (Brian Cox) and son Austin (women-beating puke Emile Hirsch) and tasks them with finding some kind of explanation for who this woman is and how she came to be dead in that basement.

But the more Tommy and Austin dig (literally) into Jane Doe, the stranger and weirder things grow outside and inside, until soon the race to learn the truth about Jane Doe is a battle for their own lives.

Next Week’s Pick:

In 1940s Shanghai, lovably boneheaded vagrants Sing and Bone try to get ahead in a world populated by rich gangsters and destitute slum residents — and a surprising number of hidden martial arts masters. From the mind of Stephen Chow and featuring a mix of his regular troupe of collaborators and kung fu film legends of yore, our next pick is the wonderfully brilliant and zany Kung Fu Hustle.

Would you like to be a guest in next week’s Two Cents column? Simply watch and send your under-200-word review to twocents(at)cinapse.coanytime before midnight on Thursday!

Our Guests

Brendan Agnew (The Norman Nerd):

Watching what André Øvredal accomplishes with The Autopsy of Jane Doe is akin to seeing a master chef prepare a gourmet meal out of seemingly limited ingredients. Not because the director, cast, or setting are lacking, but because the film seems to intentionally set up a series of boundaries (ultimate “bottle episode” setting, 3 principal cast members [only 2 of whom speak], and hinging everything on a mystery that could fall on its face as easily as work), only then to not just navigate them but clear then like hurdles at a confident sprint.

Øvredal does everything right in establishing the coroner team of Tommy and his son, Austin, but all the careful setup in the world would be for naught if Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch didn’t have great familial chemistry — which, of course, they do. And even as unsettling as the “stocked morgue during a creepy thunderstorm” logline is inherently, it’s easy to imagine a scenario where “90 minutes of dissecting a corpse” would be any collection of genuinely unpleasant outcomes instead of a skillful and terrifying balancing act.

Which, of course, it is.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe being good will not overly shock fans of Øvredal’s 2010 film Trollhunter, nor will his deft touch on visual effects even under tight budgetary constraints. That it winds up being one of those horror films you hear about spoken of with effusive praise and then winds up every bit as good as you’d been led to believe?

That’s a little bit magical.(@BLCAgnew)

The Team

Justin Harlan:

When a film’s runtime is dominated by Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch, and a ton of general creepiness, it’s nearly impossible for it to suck. However, this isn’t to say that it necessarily rules, either. You still need a good script, well written characters, strong supporting actors, and decent cinematography. Thankfully for this one, it has all of those in spades.

It’s easy to completely lose yourself in the creepy atmosphere of this film. It’s also easy to forget that you’re watching actors and not a real father and son mortician duo. The masterful acting pairs with remarkably well designed and shot scenes of foreboding, as well some of the best executed jump scares of the past decade.

In short, this is a great watch for any and all horror fans. Of corpse you can take my word on it, but it remains too entertaining to pass up. (@thepaintedman)

Brendan Foley:

I caught this one at Fantastic Fest a couple years back and had a thoroughly good time of it. If nothing else, Jane Doe demonstrates just what a wide range of talent Øvredal possesses. His Trollhunter is one of the better found footage movies, but even so, found footage is, by its nature, a very limiting format with only so much room to play, visually speaking. Here, operating on what must have been a fairly tight budget, Øvredal constructs a lush haunted house, draping shadows in painterly brushstrokes and ably keeping a steady, gripping momentum throughout what could be a static, stage-y piece. After all, the movie is mostly two guys in one room poking around a dead body, yet it is never anything less than engaging, often tipping over into outright terror.

For all the tricks that Øvredal is deploying, the movie lives and dies on Cox and Hirsch and both perform quite ably. Backstory is dolloped in here and there, but Jane Doe trusts that both actors can sell their father-son dynamic and the resultant bonds and tensions within that relationship. Cox is a particular stand out as a man who simply can’t allow himself to show weakness or vulnerability and instead masks his pain behind gruff self-righteousness. I wish Cox did more horror, as he slides right in and sells the hell out of even the nuttiest moments of the film.

And it gets pretty nutty. Øvredal has cited The Conjuring as his main inspiration for this one, and you can definitely see the lineage in the careful compositions and the specific uses of sound and camera moves to sell scares. But Øvredal seems all around more comfortable with the pulpy brand of horror than James Wan did in at least the first Conjuring. Jane Doe is gleefully mean, but with just enough of a naughty wink that you can delight in its cruelty. (@theTrueBrendanF)

Austin Vashaw:

I should thank Brendan for selecting this week’s pick, because I never would have ever watched “that nude corpse autopsy movie” on my own (in fact, this week’s pick probably would have been the animated anthology Extraordinary Tales had it not recently disappeared from streaming).

Turns out, Jane Doe is a great spook tale with a lot of surprises and a fascinatingly unwinding mystery as the coroner team makes increasingly bizarre discoveries about their unidentified victim, both by internal dissection and external paranormal activity.

Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch are rightly praised for their roles as that father-son team, but Olwen Kelly deserves acclaim for her role as the Jane Doe, an unimaginably challenging and terrifyingly vulnerable role that required her to lie nude, completely immobile, as two men poke and prod at her prone form. Her performance is largely in her eyes which, while perfectly still, give a spark of life to her characters, subtly portraying whatever expression of mystery, humanity, or malevolence her scenes require. (Austin Vashaw)

Next week’s pick:

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