Like Ronseal, The Autopsy of Jane Doe does exactly what it says on the tin. Writers Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing have done their research and come back with a horror film based on the meticulous process of sleuthing through a cadaver. Of course there’s more to the film than a mere autopsy — just not much more. Director André Øvredal, who shot to fame in 2010 with amiable mockumentary Troll Hunter, once again shows a flair for genre mashing. In Jane Doe, he once again offers up a healthy blend shocks and laughs, but the film struggles to outlive the novelty of its premise. Once the investigative thrill of the first half subsidises, we’re faced with a familiar bout of genre rigor mortis.
In a theatrical spirit, Jane Doe confines itself to one location: the retro shabby chic basement of a family-owned morgue. The cast is similarly sparse; father and son, Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austen (Emile Hirsch) respectively, hog the dissection table as they perform an autopsy on a beautiful young woman (Olwen Catherine Kelly) discovered half-buried at an inexplicable multiple domestic homicide. The sheriff requests a cause of death by morning, so Tommy and Austen are forced to work through the night on the peculiar Jane Doe. An apparently routine examination soon becomes something far more sinister as a supernatural malevolence begins to haunt the morgue.
The novel element of Jane Doe is the surgery itself. The morbidly curious process guides the narrative through the first half of the film with the steady precision of a scalpel. Jane Doe’s crisp porcelain veneer is a striking façade, but it’s only when Tommy cuts through this pale shell do we begin to discover something truly bizarre. Jane’s entrails are a contradiction of burns and breaks coupled with impossibly fresh organs. Cinematographer Romain Osin delves headlong into the gore of the coroner’s work with unwavering realism.
The site of brains quite literally being picked isn’t one for the faint hearted, nor those with a rumbling stomach. While I’m certainly no coroner, the assured confidence with which Øvredal approaches the autopsy successfully blurs the lines between fiction and fact making for tense, engrossing body horror. Working in tandem with the excavation of Jane’s corpse is a sly sense of foreboding on the periphery. Austen begins to see ghostly apparitions in the mirror, the radio crackles tauntingly and a storm rages outside, hemming the duo in. No nonsense Tommy laughs off any supernatural concerns, but as genre experts, we know better than to discount imminent terror.
After cultivating an atmosphere fertile for hysteria and jump scares (of which there are more than a few), we’re left rueing the lapse into daft conspiracy and literal horror. It’s almost always the case with horror that what you can’t see is far scarier than what you can. Once The Autopsy of Jane Doe lapses into more overt and visceral shocks, the film becomes a less thrilling and more commonplace story. It’s only natural the film ventures towards this point, but like Paranormal Activity, Annabelle and Mama, it rarely sustains our interest once its crosses the threshold.
One of the film’s surprisingly enduring quirks is the father-son dynamic. The death of Austen’s mother/Tommy’s wife provides a dubious emotional backdrop, but the sense of camaraderie shown between the two is a major hook. The novelty of witnessing a father and son sharing this terrifying experience is an oddly heart-warming experience, one that is sadly committed to the incinerator of third act twists.
The film’s lackluster use of monsters and walking corpses never feels nearly as threatening as the startling gaze of Jane Doe. Not since Weekend at Bernie’s has a lifeless corpse played such a pivotal role in a film. The use of an actual person, rather than a mere prosthetic, is a master stroke that means Jane, despite her apparent stillness, takes on a life of her own. As her washed out glare punctuates the film, we’re consistently left stupefied in the fear she’s going to jolt back to life at any moment. The stunning real life model Olwen Kelly only adds to the perverse mix of allure and disgust that the corpse exudes.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe’s saving grace is that it never takes itself too seriously. There’s a gross-out sense of fun that graphic nature of autopsy invariably brings with it. The mortuary angle also provides a thrilling method of driving the investigative narrative. There’s a sickly communal joy in seeing the cranium pulled back and the heart extracted, allowing a cheerful groan of disgust from the audience. Add in the strangely compelling father-son relationship, anchored by a superb turn from veteran Brian Cox, and, despite a ho-hum finale, you’ve solid entertainment in the cinematic mortuary of recent horror films.
Verdict: Movie Win
This article is part of a series of articles covering the 2016 London Film Festival.