André Øvredal follows up Troll Hunter with The Autopsy of Jane Doe, a ghoulishly unique horror with a gruesome mystery to dissect.
“Everybody has secrets, some are better at hiding them than others” instructs Tony Tilden (Brian Cox) to his son Austin (Emile Hirsch) as they begin their autopsy of an unidentified girl, brought in late one autumnal night by a sheriff desperate for answers.
This is where the great intrigue lies in the wonderful The Autopsy of Jane Doe. We’ll spend the entire night down in the basement of a family morgue with a friendly father and son, trying to uncover exactly what has happened to the Jane Doe. As they work from the external, to the internal, the coroner duo will uncover injuries that are increasingly horrific and, more to the point, utterly implausible.
Jane Doe’s wrists and ankles have been fractured, her tongue severed, her lungs are blackened, her internal organs are marked with scar tissue, yet not a trace of her external body shows any sign of injury. As Tony says, “It’s like finding a bullet in the brain but no entry wound.”
André Øvredal, director of the playful but surprisingly scary Troll Hunter, has created a similarly fascinating experiment in twisting the horror genre with The Autopsy of Jane Doe. And when it sticks to the dissection table it’s a deeply satisfying chiller.
Cox and Hirsch are cordially likeable as the father and son team. They wisecrack, they listen to rock ‘n’ roll, they’re capable of attracting romantic admirers despite their work. Likewise, the morgue is a surprisingly warm place to spend time in; their family business is wood clad and full of memories, which the camera subtly details along with the more gruesome aspects of their work.
As father instructs son on the finer points of an autopsy, especially when it comes to ascertaining cause of death and not treading beyond those boundaries, this is where the meaty character stuff lies. Brian Cox has a playful malevolence when his son’s girlfriend visits and wishes to see her first corpse. It seems to mirror the glee André Øvredal will take in toying with his own audience.
Body horror is rarely scary – gory, gruesome, disturbing yes, but where The Autopsy of Jane Doe excels is in adding pure dread to every slice of a scalpel and surgical crack of a rib cage. You fear what the pair will find next, but you’re equally fascinated to know more. It’s horrible and fascinating. The visual representation of morbid curiosity has never been realised better.
Øvredal also makes fantastic use of Jane Doe’s reaction to proceedings. The constant cutaways to her lifeless, porcelain face help to humanise the corpse. Her expressions at times seem defiant, beatific, smug, callous – we know these expressions are impossible, but we’re forced to read them as such while the camera lingers on her face. She’s the horror equivalent of the Mona Lisa.
It’s when the film enters more conventional horror territory that The Autopsy of Jane Doe loses momentum. As events take less ambiguous and frustratingly predictable turns, you’re left disappointed that we couldn’t spend longer in a grotesque version of Quincy, M.E.
However, the film soon corrects itself, and all the wonderful foreshadowing and character development comes to satisfying, cyclical finalé. And perhaps most importantly of all, you will uncover the truth – so don’t let anyone spoil it for you. And in the grand tradition of all the greatest television dramas involving medical examiners, if you pay close enough attention you may figure it out for yourself. 4/5
Please note, this review was originally published in October as part of our London Film Festival coverage.