A body is discovered buried in a basement. An impossible body. No decomposition. No marks. Nothing. So what was the cause of death, considering everyone else in the house met a violent and bloody end? This is the puzzle that The Autopsy of Jane Doe throws at father-and-son coroners Tommy and Austin Tilden (Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch) who make baffling discovers as they slowly dissect the body of a young woman on their table.
Directed by André Øvredal (Trollhunter, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) The Autopsy Of Jane Doe is a wonderful and creepy horror film that layers on its dread as it slowly cuts into and removes organs from its subject matter. Methodically they find a litany of injuries and evidence of torture in the Jane Doe before them, but these don’t stack up with her pristine outward appearance and none seem to be that elusive cause of death.
With a very limited cast and limited setting, there is room to do so much. Brian Cox as the father is not interested in the theories his son fires off about why Jane Doe is as she is. He’s only interested in the cause of death, yet can’t help but get pulled into the mystery. Yet throughout he is kind and considered.
Emilie Hirsch also plays the son as good and caring. He might not want to be a coroner all his life in the family business, but, due to the recent loss of his mother, he wants to look after his Dad. The fact that we know we are in a horror film and that such nice people are potentially in harm's way adds to the tension that each scalpel cut builds up.
With regards to the plot, there isn’t much else that can be said without risking spoilers. Øvredal does a great job of increasing the sense of unease whilst working in classic spooks. The morgue area that the Tilden’s work in is underground their own family home. The claustrophobic and darkly lit corridors are accessible only by an old shuddering elevator or a storm hatch, both of which cause problems as the movie progresses.
Various unsettling elements are set up early so that the knife can be twisted again and again later. A radio that keeps switching to a specific song (‘Open Up Your Heart (And Let The Sunshine In)’). A ‘dead ringers’ bell tied around the toe of a corpse. The second half of the movie ensures that all those things you noticed now have you on the edge of your seat.
Special praise must also go to Olwen Kelly as Jane Doe. Yes, that’s a real actress on that table. With ‘the body’ being so front and center throughout the movie any dodgy prosthetic work would have been exposed. By hiring a real actress – who can control her breathing thanks to yoga expertise – means that the human connection is still there even during the initial clinical slicing and dicing.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a wonderfully crafted horror film that stands apart from the usual jump scare or gore-fests by working with graceful skill. Its body horror / haunted house blend of genres should tick most boxes. Just be sure that your heart isn’t in your mouth…
Now available on Netflix US or to rent or buy on Amazon Prime in the UK.
Words by Mike Record