The Autopsy of Jane Doe

Studio: IFC Midnight
Directed by André Ovredal

Dec 21, 2016 Web Exclusive
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In the suburban home of a massacred family, police find the naked body of a young woman buried in a shallow basement grave. She has no identifying marks, no dental records and no wounds of any kind. She is brought to the local mortuary, a father/son operation run by Austin and Tommy Tilden. As their late night autopsy uncovers numerous revelations, each more gruesome and inexplicable than the last, one question looms above all: who is Jane Doe?

The thriller as medical procedural is nothing new. It constitutes a key element of everything from episodes of CSI and its various imitators to films like Se7en and Jaws. The autopsy scene is always an early step on the path to uncovering a killer. A mysterious but vital clue will be discovered, the victim laid out naked on a slab provides a stark reminder of the stakes, and there’s usually a bit of humor from coroner, invariably glib despite his morbid profession. The Autopsy of Jane Doe – the English-language debut of Trollhunter writer/director André Ovredal – takes that familiar scene and expands it into a ninety-minute bottle episode featuring two main characters trapped in a single location.  

Although it frequently traffics in cliché, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is an effective horror film, using many familiar elements - mirror scares, creepy old-timey music, eerie sound design and lighting - to great effect. The most compelling section is the middle third, in which the bulk of the autopsy unfolds, each discovery topping the previous in terms of weirdness and grotesqueness. The escalation of the autopsy all but ensures that the inevitable resolution to the mystery is somewhat vague and disappointing, but the specificity of the characters and the scenario make it a fun ride. As the two Tildens, legendary character actor Brian Cox and younger, less-legendary character actor Emile Hirsch, make for a believable father/son pairing and Ovredal wisely downplays the expected family friction in favor of giving them a professional team dynamic. There’s some boilerplate backstory involving their dead mother/wife and Hirsch’s character has a girlfriend who ultimately feels unnecessary, but otherwise, the film is a model of efficiency, even by horror standards. Unsung, but crucial, is Olwen Kelly as Jane Doe herself. Ovredal uses the same shot of her face, blank-eyed and slack-jawed, as a dreadful metronome, from which every other horror is derived. 

Author rating: 6.5/10

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