The Autopsy of Jane Doe is one of those locked down haunted house films that, at the offset, seems unsustainable. The film only has two lead characters – widower coroner Tony Tilden (Brian Cox) and his adult son Austin (Emile Hirsch) – and it is clear early on that the action won’t leave the basement morgue and crematorium beneath the family home. Despite the considerable labyrinth hallways and darkened corners, how will Norwegian director André Øvredal (Trollhunter) keep the film from running out of steam?
Allow me to emphatically reassure you that this isn’t an issue. Shooting from a script by Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing, Øvredal easily and effectively manages to draw out the tension and scares over the film’s 86 minute run time, turning the small space into an asset when father and son discover that they are trapped underground with a malevolent, seemingly indestructible corpse.
The body in question is the titular Jane Doe (Olwen Catherine Kelly), whose discovery in a shallow basement grave of a domestic double murder opens the film. The Sheriff (Michael McElhatton) doesn’t know what to make of the dead girl whose body displays no outward signs of physical damage and can’t be identified, so he asks the Tildens to rush the autopsy results. Working late into the night as a storm brews outside, the medical investigation is divided into four stages, with each delivering additional unsettling information about the mysterious dead girl.
Anchoring the film are Cox and Hirsch, both genre vets with charisma and talent to spare. It can be difficult to flesh out memorable characters in horror films that take place over a single night because the plot tends to kick in early and move quickly. While neither Tony or Austin have significantly detailed histories, there’s an easy chemistry between the actors and Goldberg & Naing’s script ensures there is enough exposition to give us a sense of their relationship. A few early scenes with Austin’s put-upon girlfriend Emma (Ophelia Lovibond), whom he constantly abandons to keep his father company, hint at familial conflict while also supplying some chuckles. These moments nicely cement the characters’ personalities before the shit hits the fan.
Once the autopsy begins the tension and the dread kick in big time. Øvredal masterfully balances the requisite gore with some well-earned jump scares and a foreboding sense of doom. When the lights in the morgue go out and three other deceased residents go missing, it’s only a matter of time before the horror kicks in. A particularly effective trick is the use of a bell attached to one cadaver’s foot; the recurring tiny tinkle played excessively well with the Midnight Madness audience who laughed uneasily each time the bell chimed at the end of a darkened hallway. One of the smartest decisions Øvredal makes is relying on the power of suggestion to create horror – he regularly opts to mask events in smoke and darkness, drawing out an attack to increase the tension to nearly unbearable levels. The decision to obscure both the monsters and the violence not only forces audiences to use their imaginations, it more or less eliminates his reliance on unconvincing special effects (something other horror films could learn a lesson or two from).
The best scene of the film uses this strategy. When the power briefly returns, the father and son team make a break for safety via the elevator. As they struggle to force open the antique gate, the tinkle of the bell sounds at the end of the darkened hallway. The battle to secure the elevator cab before the corpse arrives drags on interminably long, the tension ratcheting up as we await the inevitable meeting of axe and flesh. The scene had the audience on the edge of our seats (my feet actually lifted off the ground in anticipation) – it’s a perfect killer combination of direction, editing and performance.
Overseeing all of these events is the naked woman on the slab. Øvredal repeatedly cuts to a medium-close-up of her face – after every incision, removed organ and malevolent attack – hinting at her authorial presence and possibly even pain. It’s an odd role for Catherine Kelly since it doesn’t require her to do anything other than lay on the table, and yet there’s an oddly expressive quality about her face, suggesting at various points that Jane Doe is more alive than we have been led to believe.
Overall The Autopsy of Jane Doe is an unabashed success thanks to its tightly plotted script, its confident director who knows how to maximize tension and its willing performers who bring charm and depth to their performances. Chalk this one up as another excellent entry in 2016’s horror renaissance.