UK | 2016 | Directed by André Øvredal
Logline: Father and son medical examiners investigate a mysterious murder victim with no apparent death and discover increasingly disturbing signs that a malevolent supernatural force is involved.
Following the critical success of his Trollhunter found footage horror fantasy hybrid Norwegian Øvredal changes his approach entirely with his third feature and delivers one of the year’s creepiest movies. Whereas as Trollhunter was more of creature feature romp with tongue in cheek, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is definitely a darker and affecting piece of work. This is unbridled nightmare material, and likely to unnerve the most jaded horror fans. It’s also one of the most original horror movies in recent years.
Austin (Emile Hirsch) and his father Tommy (Brian Cox) work as medical examiners in the family-owned business. Late one night the local Sheriff delivers a young woman’s body who had been discovered in a shallow grave in the basement of a house where several brutal murders had taken place. She is apparently dead, but appears in pristine condition. Austin is due for a date with girlfriend, Emma (Ophelia Lovibond), so dad sends him off, but Austin gets a bad case of the guilts, so he postpones the date til later in the evening, so he can assist his father and get the cause of death sorted quickly.
With the two men working together in the underground facility a storm begins to rage above ground. As the corpse can’t be immediately identified she is given the police procedural moniker of “Jane Doe”. Her glazed eyes are milky, and odd sign. She has dirt under her fingernails and toenails. Her tongue has been severed. But this is only the beginning. The night will get darker and the atmosphere of dread will soon turn to abject terror as Jane Doe begins to reveal her true nature, her origin, her purpose.
Building on classic horror elements Øvredal steadily creates an overwhelmingly ominous vibe. It’s essentially a two-hander, and a chamber piece, as almost the entire movie takes place in the examining room. It’s a superbly executed piece of cinema that could easily have fallen prey to feeling like a filmed play, or a short film padded out to feature length. The sound design is one of the movie’s highlights, especially the punctuation use of a small bell tinkling, tied to the toe of a corpse, a reminder of an old-fashioned method of careful morticians who didn’t want to end up burying a person who wasn’t quite dead yet, as was often the case during plague times. Also excellent is the prosthetic work.
Cox and Hirsch give excellent performances. Apparently Martin Sheen was originally cast in the father’s role, but had to pull out. Cox is perfect, and I can’t imagine Sheen giving a better performance. Special mention must be made on Olwen Kelly, who plays Jane Doe, laying fully nude and prone on an autopsy table, as it would be easy to describe her role as thankless, however, it is her sustained stillness (she is a yoga expert); her ability to control her body and breathing, and thus, she’s amazing, the most convincing dead body I’ve ever seen in a feature.
The less one knows about The Autopsy of Jane Doe the better. For the trainspotters there is a neat little clue to the nature of the nightmare in the poster art. There are a couple of very effective shocks, and the narrative tightens its screw of dread with consummate control. Best watched late at night, alone, with all the lights off.