Norwegian director Andre Øvredal followed up his satirical dark fantasy monster movie Trollhunter (2010) with a deadly serious chiller, also his English-language debut, that became a sleeper hit and in short time has gained traction as a beloved contemporary horror classic.
Small town coroner Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) runs his family business out of a state-of-the-art mortuary and crematorium bunker underneath the family homestead. With son-in-training Austin (Emile Hirsch) assisting him, the two stay late one night in order to perform an autopsy on a recently delivered, and unidentified, female corpse from a local murder scene. The corpse exhibits no outward signs of distress or notable markings. But as the duo begin their extensive examinations in order to produce a c.o.d (cause of death) for the demanding sheriff, dark questions about the mysterious girl arise, and their answers prove sinister.
One excellent feature of the film to note right off the bat is the perfectly mapped structure of the film. The story is entirely linear in the best way, providing a sense of order the viewer can anticipate and follow. Father and son embark on their normal examination process the way they would for any other “new arrival,” and we’re told that this will involve a cursory exterior examination, an inspection of the internal organs, and then finally peeling back the skull to tackle the brain. All the while, they will speculate on possible c.o.d. based on their findings. The great thing about this set-up is that, after strange things begin to happen in that cold, clean basement, the viewer knows that there are more mysteries coming. They still have the next step ahead of them. As such, a very tangible sense of dread, anticipation, and danger develops.
Throughout the procedure there’s some excellent dialogue exchanged between the two leads, Tommy and Austin. The elder Tilden is unceremonial and by-the-books in his work, as one needs to be in such a profession, and Austin is the loyal son who sacrifices time spent with his girlfriend to help his father get the work done. What’s great is that, even with this sacrifice, the relationship between father and son is never painted as strained or difficult as so many films do in order to fashion drama and tension. They are normal people thrown into a very abnormal situation and it is their relationship that allows them to move together through this trial. Hirsch and Cox both deserve credit for this, and for creating real characters easy to identify with and follow on their unusual journey. But the anchoring performance of the film would have to be Olwen Kelly as the Jane Doe corpse. Playing dead is an art, and a difficult one at that. She’s got no lines, barely moves, and is nude pretty much the entire time, and yet somehow still manages to deliver a great performance. Who would have guessed?
The film is also, thankfully, full of frights. The scares are not necessarily abundant, but there’s just enough, and they are so excellently and deftly executed that I want to avoid even the tiniest bit of discussion of them here in order to save you the surprise later. I will say that even if you spot one of the scares coming early on (there’s some pretty obvious throwaway dialogue that hints at it), you’ll still find your heart racing and your pulse quickening when things start to go awry.
If all of this sounds sufficiently vague, then good. The less clues you have to the mystery, the better. Piece by piece the film weaves together who Jane Doe is, why her body bears no signs of outward physical trauma, and what exactly happened to her and the revelation is both haunting and satisfying, though the third act itself is not entirely original. But such a minor flaw can be forgiven for the sake of great, likable characters, a steady supply of the creepiness and unease, and beautiful production design. The coroner’s facility in the basement is an excellent set, creating a sort of locked-room effect as the action never leaves the mortuary. There’s lots of playing with shadows and corners and the excellent placement of a corner mirror that figures in some of the film’s most terrifying moments. A definite recommendation, full of spooks that will make it impossible for you to just lie still…
The Autopsy of Jane Doe
5 – Totally Terrifying
- 4 – Crazy Creepy
3 – Fairly Frightening 2 – Slightly Scary 1 – Hardly Horror