Director: Andre Øvredal
Starring: Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch & Olwen Kelly
Synopsis: A father and son, both coroners, are pulled into a complex mystery while attempting to identify the body of a young woman, who was apparently harboring dark secrets.
Rating: 15 Duration: 83 minutes Release date: 26 June (UK)
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a film that may have passed many by. Originally released throughout 2016 at various festivals around the world, the film would later receive a limited run in cinemas at the start of 2017 and despite favourable reviews, it has failed to make much of an impact. It’s hard to see why though. Featuring Bryan Cox & Emile Hirsch and directed by the man who gave us Troll Hunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a taut horror set in a father and son mortuary. The tension is close and the claustrophobia is key to a film that does its best to truly unsettle the audience.
The film opens in a home in small town America where a grisly homicide has taken place. Bodies are strewn across the household, while the police can find no signs of forced entry. Upon further investigation, the officers find a woman buried in the basement and conclude all the other victims were trying to escape the house. Local Sheriff Sheldon Burke (McElhatton) orders the mysterious body to be taken to the local morgue where Tommy Tilden (Cox) and son Austin (Hirsch) are tasked with unravelling the mysterious circumstances around Jane Doe’s death.
As the two begin their autopsy they find various anomalies which seem to contradict the young woman’s death. Her eyes are glazed over, indicating she has been dead for a few days, but her body is still fresh. Her wrists and ankles have been shattered, but show no outward signs of distress and when they begin to open her chest she bleeds profusely which is again a sign of a fresh corpse. The two investigate further and the more they advance through the procedure, the more complicated her cause of death becomes. As they continue, their radio starts to deliver strange messages while a thrashing storm outside threatens to keep them locked in the basement of the mortuary.
Where The Autopsy of Jane Doe really succeeds is in the first two-thirds of the film. Here, director Andre Øvredal builds tension through the claustrophobic nature of the morgue where the majority of the film is set. There is a real sense of creeping paranoia that the director handles perfectly. He uses the morgue to the best of its abilities and unsettles the audience with clever camera angles and the impending sense of being trapped down there. There is also a mystery at play here. As father and son delve deeper into the plight of Jane Doe they begin to realise that all is not as it seems. As the night sets in, the two also ask some very deep questions about themselves, regarding failure and the guilt they both share over the death of their mother and wife.
It’s an interesting dynamic to see play out on-screen. Their father and son relationship is far from broken and the two share many moments of joy and have a unique banter that only a father and son can possess. Cox and Hirsch share an easy chemistry which lends itself well to the film and their relationship feels real and satisfying, which is a credit to both. Cox has that charmingly grumpy air about him that he has perfected over the years, while Hirsch feels like the small town American boy who wants to leave his home for the possibility of something bigger, but can’t leave his father behind.
There are scares aplenty here and the majority of them work really well. The opening crawl across an unnamed household where a grisly killing has taken place sets the tone, while the scenes in the mortuary are not for the weak of stomach. There are some jump scares thrown in, but where the film really works is its growing sense of dread, something that for the first 40 minutes or so is on a knife-edge. It’s regrettable then that the final third breaks down into overly familiar horror territory. As events start to become clearer the film loses it way a little and replaces a well-earned nervous strain with something close to a stalk and slash film.
It may be disappointing and despite a ropey ending, the film has done enough to earn its pardon. Cox, Hirsch and Olwen Kelly as Jane Doe along with director Øvredal have made a confident horror film that will unnerve horror fans as much as it will please them.
- Q&A with director Andre Øvredal
The solitary extra on the DVD release is a short Q&A with director Andre Øvredal. The Q&A is a little over five minutes long and it’s interesting to spend some time with the director and to learn why he chose the film and how it originally had Martin Sheen planned for the father role, until they lost him and gained Brian Cox. There is an unbridled energy in the director and he clearly enjoys his job and talking about it. The only shame is that the Q&A is clearly edited and we do not get to spend longer listening to his stories from the set.