The story goes that Norwegian director André Øvredal was inspired to make a horror film after having watched The Conjuring – he looked around for a screenplay, and came across The Autopsy of Jane Doe. It’s his English-language debut, and it is a tightly-constructed and effective little horror film, boasting two strong lead performances that are a cut above the generic norm.
The police are called to a house where a bloody and bizarre homicide has occurred – there are no signs of forced entry, and it seems as though the victims were trying to escape the house. Things are further complicated by the discovery of an unidentified corpse, half-buried in the basement. In order to get some answers, the Jane Doe winds up in the morgue, run by father and son coroners Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) and Austin (Emile Hirsch). The examination begins to throw up all manner of contradictions, stumping the two as to the cause of death. The autopsy soon becomes the least of their worries, as the corpse seems to have brought something sinister into the morgue with it.
When it comes to horror, it is impossible to overstate the value of good actors (which makes it more of a shame that most ‘serious actors’ wouldn’t touch a horror script with a bargepole). Here, we are treated with Cox and Hirsch – they have a good rapport with each other, and they help to make the movie believable (or, at least, as grounded in reality as it can be). They are both nuanced characters, and they really sell the frights – this is essentially a two-man show, and they anchor it throughout, a far cry from the usual bland cannon fodder we get to enjoy. (Interestingly, Martin Sheen was the first choice for the father role before he had to drop out – I wonder what he’d have made of it.)
Special mention must also go to the practical effects in this picture – unsurprisingly, a film based around a coroners and an autopsy gives us a fair bit of bodies being opened up, things extracted, injury detail – you name it, and the film has it. A big difference, though, is the presentation and the tastefulness of it all. The matter of fact-ness the movie uses in dealing with blood and guts helps to generate more and more discomfort for the viewer. Every aspect of this place, and the job, is milked for the horror potential it has, right from the off.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is not a very long film (running at just shy of 90 minutes), and it is a movie of two parts. Fortunately, the first hour of it is very good, working on the mystery of the corpse and the mounting dread of what is to come. It’s when the film shifts towards its more out-and-out horror finale that it gets a bit poor – if you don’t like films where characters come to grand conclusions with the most minute pieces of evidence, you won’t like this. It’s a shame it devolves into a something farcical solution, especially as what comes before is very well done, but that’s horror’s cross to bear.
Despite issues with the silly expositiony ending, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a very nicely done horror film – it’s effective, and it works well creating an atmosphere that it employs to maximum effect. It’s rare that we get a horror with well-written characters (that are well-acted, to boot), and one that manages to feel frightening. It’s not perfect by any means, but for what it is, it’s very good.
Director: André Øvredal
Cast: Emile Hirsch (Austin Tilden), Brian Cox (Tommy Tilden), Ophelia Lovibond (Emma), Michael McElhatton (Sheriff Sheldon), Olwen Kelly (Jane Doe)
Running Time: 86 Mins