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You’re probably not going to find a better setting for a horror movie other than perhaps a cemetery or a haunted house than that of a morgue. Movies have long made these morbid surroundings home to jump scares and creepy atmosphere. The Autopsy of Jane Doe is set almost entirely within the poorly-lit florescent corners of an underground crematory, and while it’s extremely well-cast and directed, and starts with great promise, it’s ultimately a predicable but solid horror thriller.
In a suburban home in a small Virginian town, police investigate a charnel house of horror as a family lays gutted and bled out in various rooms of a crimson-soaked house. In the basement, they discover a dead, nude young woman (Olwen Kelly) half buried in the dirt and note that the house shows no signs of someone breaking in, but rather the opposite, as if the occupants were trying to get out.
Nearby, in the subterranean catacombs of the Tilden Morgue & Crematorium, father Tony (Brian Cox), a widower, and son Austin (Emile Hirsch) finish up work on a burn victim and begin to close up for the night. Their plans for the evening are cut short when police deliver the Jane Doe body and claim they need a cause of death by morning, and so the men, with Austin postponing his date with Emma (Ophelia Lovibond), decide to stay underground and attempt to solve a new mystery. Getting to work on the outwardly appearing beautiful corpse, they slice up the girl and find a trove of terrifying secrets within.
Among the broken bones and burns, they find clues to what looks like a ritualistic sacrifice traced to a centuries-old occult. All the while, what sounds like a terrible storm thunders closer and the halls become filled by eerie noises, crackling radios and flickering lights, seemingly the harbinger of a coming dread. As the night passes, and the men further peel open Jane, they become convinced she is not what she appears, and is host to a horrific spirit that soon spreads through the autopsy room with ghastly results, reanimating the other corpses and forcing Tim, Austin, and Emma into a nightmare of terror.
Directed by André Øvredal, whose previous film Trollhunter, a mix of dark comedy and horror, earned international acclaim, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is the filmmaker’s English-language feature debut. Ramping up the horror, he abandons the humor of Trollhunter, but retains the lore of sorts, shifting from legends of Norwegian monsters to American tales of witchcraft. It is a pointedly more graphic leap for the director, who doesn’t shy away from the gore, and yet keeps to the realism he strived for in Trollhunter, despite the forays into fantasy both movies require.
A film like this depends almost entirely on the characters in selling the clearly ludicrous premise, and for that, the film hits its highest marks with Cox and Hirsch never once teetering over the edge, completely convincing as they play into the well-worn tropes of the genre. Cox has always had great presence in film, despite a lack of meaty roles, and here is impressive in the lead, authoritative as the experienced mortician. Hirsch too is comfortable, playing it low-key as he should. Both give the film much-needed weight. Surprisingly, Kelly is very good as the corpse, having no lines but most assuredly doing great work as she undergoes what amounts to a courageous role.
The movie is essentially two films, or rather one with a jarring second half or one with a peculiar first depending on which appeals. The outstanding opening 45 minutes of this refreshingly brief 86-minute story play out like a thrilling crime drama, feeling like it should be a mystery rather than horror, with slow, dripping suspense built-up extremely well before suddenly going full-on terror with loud jump scares and clichéd paranormal activity, losing a bit of its grip along the way.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is good looking film, with excellent production design and direction, proving once again that Øvredal is no fluke. While it ends up a little too conventional where it could have innovated, the movie is a solid thriller with plenty to offer for those looking for some jumps.
Director: André Øvredal
Writers: Ian B. Goldberg, Richard Naing
Stars: Emile Hirsch, Brian Cox, Ophelia Lovibond