Austin (Emile Hirsch) has to assist his coroner father (Brian Cox) on a rush overnight job — determining the cause of death of unidentified ‘Jane Doe’ (Olwen Kelly). As they work, they’re plagued by perhaps-supernatural manifestations.
An essay in gothic forensics, The Autopsy Of Jane Doe is Norwegian director André Øvredal’s follow-up to Troll Hunter. This swaps the snowy wastes for the claustrophobic interiors of a retro-look morgue, yet, like Troll Hunter, it mixes suspense with black comedy, a high level of gore and spooky mystery. Despite the American setting, it begins as a Scandi-style small-town noir, then shades into ghost story chills.
Just bring a strong stomach.
The hook is that an unnamed female corpse (Olwen Kelly) is found half-buried in the basement of a crime scene. The local sheriff (Michael McElhatton) asks reliable old-school coroner Tom Tilden (Brian Cox) to come up with a cause of death overnight. Tom’s son Austin (Emile Hirsch) puts off a date with his slightly ghoulish (she’d have to be) girlfriend Emma (Ophelia Lovibond) to help his widowed dad examine the contradictory corpse. Her narrow waist suggests years strapped into a corset, while internal injuries (a cut-out tongue, scarring on her lungs, crushed ankle and wrist-bones, numbing jimsonweed in the stomach) suggest a longer history of abuse than she could possibly have been alive to suffer. Though no-one dares say as much, Jane is as voluptuously nude and supernaturally alluring as Mathilda May in Lifeforce — at least until the first incisions are made. Even with her chest cut open, she is a powerful sexual presence who disturbs both men.
Over the course of the night, the body is probed internally — with excellent physical effects work — and begins to exert a malign, magical influence. News reports suggest that a thunderstorm is raging outside, and an escape route from the morgue is blocked by a fallen tree after the elevator from the basement autopsy room stops working. The radio keeps interrupting static with bursts of a sinister child’s song, Open Up Your Heart (And Let the Sunshine In). While all the attention is on Jane, other corpses start acting up in their mortuary drawers.
Screenwriters Ian B. Goldberg and Richard Naing worked on Dead Of Summer, the ’80s-set nostalgia horror show that got ignored and cancelled while everyone was watching Stranger Things. They craft an effective mix of character interplay, spooky mystery and shock-and-scare tactics. The relationship between the Tildens, who both have secrets, is played well, but their well-meaning dishonesty still causes trouble.
Cox yet again proves he’s a craggy character-acting legend, Hirsch is a low-key hero and Kelly does wonders through sheer presence (after this, her first walking-and-talking performance is highly anticipated). In contrast, the female lead with dialogue — the excellent Lovibond — is underused, returning only briefly after being established as intriguingly odd. But that’s a small quibble in an otherwise satisfying mystery horror. Just bring a strong stomach.
Featuring excellent work from grandstanding Cox and just-lying-there Kelly, The Autopsy Of Jane Doe creates a successful feeling of mounting dread punctuated by crashing thunder and surgical viscera.