Aside from the odd mobile phone and ungentlemanly curse word here and there, The Autopsy Of Jane Doe could have sprung from the mind of Edgar Allan Poe. Set in the present though it is, there’s a macabre, gothic tone to director André Øvredal’s first English-language film that makes it almost timeless.
Somewhere in Virginia, a family is found dead in their own home, the crime scene bloody and the doors locked from the inside. The mystery’s heightened further when the police venture into the basement: there, partly buried in the ground, lies the corpse of a young woman. Keen to figure out the cause of death, the police bag the woman’s body up and take it to the local mortuary – a family-run business run by Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) and his son Austin (Emile Hirsch).
As a storm closes in outside, Tommy and Austin begin the grim task of dissecting the unknown woman – or Jane Doe – and answering the questions she raises. Why are her wrists and ankles broken? If she died so long ago, why is her body so perfectly preserved? And more to the point, what was she doing in that family’s basement?
Øvredal previously brought us the entertaining and stylish Norwegian fantasy Trollhunter, and he brings a similar sense of style and atmosphere to this lean and engrossing horror flick. Set almost entirely in the basement mortuary, a building which looks as though it’s barely changed in 100 years, The Autopsy Of Jane Doe briskly wrenches up a head of claustrophobia and tension. Roman Osin’s prowling cinematography and the detailed, oppressively cluttered set design is an important factor, but the chemistry between Cox and Hirsch is key: it’s unusual to see a father-son dynamic at play in a horror-mystery, and there’s a believable familiarity and warmth between the two actors. Cox, as the pragmatic, seen-it-all expert, and Hirsch, as the less experienced apprentice, provide the film’s dramatic centre, the camera focused almost exclusively on their interactions and the dissection of their subject.
It’d be remiss not to mention Olwen Kelly, who has the rather thankless job of playing Jane Doe. Despite spending the whole film motionless, unclothed and shrouded in makeup effects, she provides an unnerving presence. On the subject of makeup effects, The Autopsy Of Jane Doe is one of those films best avoided after you’ve eaten a meal. Although low on outright violence, its matter-of-fact mortuary scenes are captured in stomach-churning detail – anyone averse to the sight of viscera and exposed rib cages should look away now.
Assuming you have the constitution to sit through the autopsy scenes, it’s the film’s first half, as Ovredal builds up the sense of dread, that is by far the most effective – its deepening enigma served up with a thick slice of disgust. Cleverly, the body itself becomes a kind of storybook, every scar and broken bone bespeaking a long and unpleasant history.
It’s in the second half, as the questions begin to be answered, that The Autopsy Of Jane Doe slips into more horror territory. Øvredal’s direction remains briskly effective, given the film’s low budget, yet the shocks and scares soon begin to have a familiar ring to them.
All the same, Autopsy remains a stylish, well-shot and superbly acted little chiller. Aside from the studiously detailed makeup effects, it’s those central performances – particularly from Cox, who’s reliably brilliant in everything – that set the film apart. Believable, likeable, vulnerable – Tommy and Austin are characters you can care about, which makes the inevitable chaos that Jane Doe brings with her all the more engrossing.
The Autopsy Of Jane Doe is out in UK cinemas on the 31st March.