The Autopsy Of Jane Doe (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor: Lionsgate) Running time: 87 minutes approx.
If you were to describe what makes a horror film, the stock answers would include supernatural beings, monsters, ghosts or extremely violent serial killers. While the rise of the psychological horror has shown that the manipulation of the sense is also a scary prospect, for some us, the human body can a horrific thing too, especially the insides.
Father and son coroners Tommy (Brian Cox) and his son Austin Tilden (Emile Hirsch) enjoy working out the mystery behind the corpses they work as much as the process of determining the cause of death. Just as Austin is about to head off on a date with his girlfriend Emma (Ophelia Lovibond), Sheriff Burke (Michael McElhatton) arrives with the body of a young woman found half-buried at the scene of a crime.
Needing to complete the autopsy quickly, Austin stays behind to help his father but this doesn’t look to be a straightforward procedure. If the fact the body showed no external signs of damage yet her internal organs have been destroyed wasn’t enough, the arrival of an unexpected storm and the increasingly bizarre happenings inside the mortuary means Tommy and Austin are in for one hell of a night.
Essentially a two hander – three if you count the extraordinary display of inertia from Irish model Olwen Kelly as the corpse – for the most part of the film’s brisk run time, André Øvredal, the Norwegian director behind Trollhunter, pulls off the remarkable trick of throwing everything but the kitchen sink into this and makes it work.
It’s part-psychological horror, part-gory medical procedure and part-supernatural chiller, with this loosely related elements brought together through the deft writing of Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing. Nothing is rushed to avoid contrivance for when they arrive while clues are scattered throughout in relation to the big reveal of the driving force behind these bizarre occurrences.
Admittedly, some of the procedural facets of the job are obvious giveaways as to what awaits us, namely the bell that they attach to the toe of a body in case there is still some life left in them. Straightaway we know that this will become important later on, but that doesn’t mean it is any less menacing when our protagonists are in mortal danger with just the ominous ringing of the bell as means of relaying its proximity.
Øvredal teases us with some jump scares in the early going with harmless situations like Emma creeping up on Austin in the dark, just to test our nerves but this is all a calculated case of the calm before the storm. Even before the first incision has been made on the prone body, a fly crawling out of the nostril and the reveal of the milky grey eyes engender an effective shudder, but an omen of what is to come.
The deceased may not have a name – John/Jane Doe is what US authorities give to unidentified people – but this is the least of the mystery surrounding her. Inspecting her body shows no signs of any harm until Tommy notices the ankles have been broken, the bone moving about beneath the skin. Similar damage has been down to the wrists while her waist is unfeasibly slim for her size, and her tongue has been cut out.
Just as Tommy is about to sink the scalpel blade into the cold flesh, an old children’s song suddenly appears on the radio despite it being set to a different station. The cut is made and the blood flows out as expected, but not in the way it should for a body that has dead for a while – this seeps out as if was from a fresh wound.
Then there is the state of the internal organs: burned, slashed and wholly rotten, but is the discovery of a missing tooth wrapped in a piece of cloth, which in turn has a strange design and random letters and Roman numerals written on it. It is deduced that the death was ritualistic but why and following what doctrine is the mystery that needs solving – if only father and son were left alone to do so.
It’s such a simple set up that uses the claustrophobia of the mortuary room as its main location to great effect, occasional venturing outside to the crematorium by way of the deep hallway and the clanking old elevator to amplify the menace and torment the coroners endure. Having the evil not confined to the one room throws more questions as to what the source of it is and allows for the conventional horror to temporarily take over.
Jump scares, gore and a tangible tormentor are only part of the terror presented here, as the clever scripting works in seemingly mundane actions as future threats with the contrived or “because it’s supernatural” deus ex machina set-ups. Øvredal relies on atmosphere as a key component for shredding our nerves so even the flicker of the overhead lights and rumble of thunder actually mean something.
For a global production everything comes together nicely. This is Øvredal’s first English language film but he retails the cold Nordic aesthetic; Englishman Brian Cox (replacing original choice Martin Sheen) is faultless as Tommy, effortlessly overshadowing screen son Austin, played by American Emile Hirsch who sports one facial expression the entire film, but as mentioned before Olwen Kelly practically steals the show by literally doing nothing.
Production values are very impressive despite the modest budget and all the better for it as excessive CGI and the like would have ruined it. The cinematography is stylish and slick, especially during the clearly well researched autopsy procedure itself, skilfully replicated by Cox.
The Autopsy Of Jane Doe is an intelligent chiller offering a fresh and interesting ideas, but leaves us wondering had it stayed on its original course and not followed familiar horror conventions in the final act, how great it could have been. Still, there is life in the old beast yet.
HOH English Subtitles
Q&A with Director André Øvredal
Rating – ***
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