Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Autopsy: Lots of Bits All Sewn Back Together

Immediately after I wrote my post on Mortuary, Autopsy came to mind. They work well as a set, as an exercise in comparison and contrast.

Both are reasonably low-budget horror movies with some solid mid-tier talent involved.

Both evoke part of the normal procedure for handling the dead.

Mortuary went straight to video, Autopsy got theatrical release as part of Horrorfest.

was generally panned by the enthusiast press, Autopsy got a positive reception.

The contrasts bug me. Not because I thought Mortuary deserved better (it really didn't), but because I think Autopsy is also a big mess. Mortuary was a narrative mess - it couldn't settle on one story to tell. Autopsy has a single story to tell - a reasonably clear narrative line - but tonally, it's all over the place.

The movie opens with a bunch of teens partying in New Orleans' French Quarter - establishing shots are presented as photographs, interspersed with the action they are in the process of capturing. It's more inventive than what I usually see from what I loosely think of as teens-in-trouble movies. So we have a group of friends - a boyfriend, a girlfriend, two female friends, and a guy they've just met, and they're all drunk or high as shit.

One thing leads to another, there's interpersonal drama, and they're driving down a rural road when a man, clad only in a hospital gown, steps out in front of their car, promptly getting flattened like you do. Panic and arguing about what to do with the body sets in, but before anyone can make a decision, along comes an ambulance. The orderlies in the ambulance agree to transport the kids back to the hospital - they're pretty banged up themselves and need medical care. Pretty convenient, there being an ambulance…right there…in the middle of nowhere, Huh.

Once they get to the hospital, they see that it's pretty much deserted - one doctor, one nurse, and the two orderlies who, on closer inspection, look all kinds of sketchy. Like just-finished-serving-their-debt-to-society-that-morning sketchy. Apparently, the hospital has been running on a skeleton crew since Katrina. The kids are triaged by the nurse, who sends them to different exam rooms, leaving the less injured impatient in the waiting room. Why is it taking so long for the doctor to see everyone? Why is the hospital so empty?

And for that matter, why are there insensate, apparently-lobotomized patients roaming the hallways?

The plot is pretty straightforward - hospital empty, kids trapped, orderlies criminal, doctor and nurse batshit insane. Kids want to get out, doctor doing horrible experiments. That's the thesis, and it's not really spoiling anything. The hook for something like this isn't what's going on. It's who gets out, how, and why they're trapped there to start.

I don't have a problem with a simple narrative - case in point, Rovdyr - but even within the confines of the narrative, you need to strike a tone. Different types of movies have different types of tone - is it going to be cool and menacing? Raw and frenetic? Spare? Haunting? Brutal? Mortuary struck a tone - cheap and awkward, but still a tone - but Autopsy really feels like a few different movies stuck together. The hospital is all long, empty, echoing hallways, silence, shadows, and deserted examination rooms, like in a good haunted house movie. The protagonists are wary, argumentative, like in the sort of movie where everyone needs to stick together and whose inability to do so costs them their lives. Their interaction is tense, there's a potential for misunderstandings, betrayal. The orderlies are hard and brutal, right out of something like Hostel, and have the piles of body parts to match. Their interactions with the protagonists are casual and ugly in their violence. The doctor (Dr. Benway - that's subtle) and the nurse are histrionic - almost operatic, like something out of an Argento movie, and they provide an equally stylized climax that bears little resemblance to the rest of the film.

The setting and some of the characters lend themselves well to a grounded, realistic survival story - people disappear every year, and the idea of an abandoned hospital forgotten in the wake of Katrina is ripe for something plausible and truly harrowing. On the other hand, you have a really out-of-place drug-trip sequence and a climax as completely bonkers and improbable as the antagonists which drive it. The character of the doctor has some promise on his own - there's one sequence involving a lumbar puncture that takes an already-painful procedure and adds all kinds of layers of creepy to it - but although his motivations make sense in the context of the movie, its treatment and specifics really need to be in a much crazier movie than this one. It takes you out of whatever investment you already have, and investment - the acceptance of the film's world and a desire to see events through to the end - is critical for the movie to be effective. We follow these kids from the French Quarter down a dark backwoods road, and end up getting lied to about where we're going.

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