A camera is placed directly above the head of a Jane Doe cadaver (Olwen Kelly) on an operating table, focused in on her face, with impossibly pale, blemish free skin, a little trickle of blood trailing out of her left nostril, and her blue/grey eyes clouded over, her mouth open just so. She is the picture of serenity, unfeeling, unmoving, vacant. Director Andre Øvredal returns to this shot with regularity throughout The Autopsy of Jane Doe, his follow-up to cult hit Trollhunter, and it’s impressive how much tension he can squeeze out of a still camera recording a still body. You just assume at one point she’s going to move, to flinch, to blink her eyes. She has to, right?
From the moment this Jane Doe is presented to father and son coroners Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austin (Emile Hirsch) Tilden, something seems wrong. Maybe it’s the worried, vacant expression on the Sheriff (Michael McElhatton, best known as Roose Bolton from Game of Thrones). Maybe it’s the grisly murders that surrounded the discovery of the body. Maybe it’s the storm that appears to have picked up outside the moment her presence is felt in the mortuary. Maybe is the preservation of the body, surrounded as she was by what she was (shown in quick flashes of crime scene photos). Either way, the Sheriff needs a cause of death and he needs it quick, so Tommy gets to work. He expects to take this one on solo, as Austin has a date with his girlfriend (Emma Lovibond) to attend to, but the allure of the body draws him back, ditching her to sate his curiosity.
The film plays out in real time over the course of this fateful night as Tommy and Austin get to work on unlocking the mystery of this corpse, and it doesn’t take long for them to notice that this won’t be an ordinary autopsy. Whether it’s a fly in her nasal cavity, a severed tongue, a piece of string in the throat, a disconcerting amount of blood in the chest cavity or scarred and blackened internal organs that appear to have had no external effect on her skin, every incision and dissection reveals more worrying things. Clearly something not remotely normal is going on here, and clearly there has to be some kind of rational explanation for it all. They just have to dig deeper. Soon, though, the odd events begin to radiate out beyond the body as lights flicker, a radio misbehaves and the drawer doors that hold some of the morgue’s recent guests just don’t want to stay closed. Just as the Tildens confirm that these events are way too creepy to be worth their time, just as they come to the conclusion that they could actually be in danger, the power goes out and their one shot at escape (an elevator up to the main house) is taken from them. Trapped and cut off from any help, they have no choice but to soldier on, clinging to the idea that if they just finish the autopsy, they could figure out what the hell is going on.
It’s a strong premise for a good slice of independent horror, and for the most part, Øvredal succeeds mightily in bringing it all to life. He builds the tension with precision, spacing out the revelations of his title character just so, beguiling Tildens and audience alike into inching just a little closer to the screen to see what clues to find next. In truth, the autopsy itself is when the film is at its most engrossing, presenting a paranormal puzzle box that is screaming out to be answered. As the horror becomes externalized to the rest of the morgue, it remains effective, though in a more conventional sense. You really just want them to get back to the body so they can figure out what is going on, to hell with anything else. It helps immensely that the likes of Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch are our portal into this story. Cox has long been one of the greats of his acting generation, never receiving the plaudits of his peers in part for his willingness to latch onto a project like this with a nothing budget and small distribution simply because he believes in it, and his gravitas is the perfect vehicle to throw a bunch of crazy at and see how he copes with it. Hirsch’s career has stalled a bit since Into the Wild made him a big name, and his panicked expression and impossibly wide eyes make for a strong contrast to Cox’s world weariness. And it’s impressive how much Jane Doe feels like a real character despite never actually doing anything; the choice to return to that steady shot of her vacant face as the mayhem reigns beyond the camera’s purview gives her an unmistakably sinister air, and if her dead lips curled into a smile, it wouldn’t come as a surprise.
Øvredal (working from a script by Ian B. Goldberg and Richard Naing) makes a few missteps here and there in the third act, including one pretty glaring one that can’t be considered much of anything other than a cheat for a cheap emotional beat, but on the whole, he does well in rolling out the tension until the wills of his characters have been stretched impossibly thin. A couple of his gimmicks work gangbusters (rest assured that an early established bell wrapped around the ankle of a corpse does eventually pay off; Chekhov would be proud), and his strategic use of light and dark serves to hide some of his makeup budget and create just the right mood for the horror of The Autopsy of Jane Doe to really sing. It’s a simple, straightforward concept artfully achieved with a pair of strong actors (and to the degree that lying perfectly still and at least looking interesting can be considered, Kelly does a fine job as well in the titular role) and some effective horror when it counts. This one will be incredibly easy to miss, with a small roll out during the busy holiday season, but with a simultaneous VOD release, it will be available to those who seek it out. Perhaps it will have legs in a similar manner to Trollhunter. It deserves them. This won’t change the world, but those looking for a slice of effective horror could do much worse.