Stars: Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch, Olwen Kelly, Ophelia Lovibond | Written by Ian Goldberg, Richard Naing | Directed by Andre Ovredal
Grantham, Virginia. A house-full of grisly murders. The body of an unidentified female is found half-buried in the basement.
Down the road is the Tilden Mortuary and Crematorium, a family business that has been running for almost a century. Inside, Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austin (Emile Hirsch), father and son, go about their autopsy work with rock music blaring, entirely comfortable in their mentor and apprentice roles.
Except Austin doesn’t see his future in this business. He and his girlfriend (Ophelia Lovibond) plan on moving away, breaking the Tilden family chain. But then, in classic “final job” style, the Jane Doe from the murder house is delivered to the autopsy table.
The sheriff needs a cause of death, so Tommy and Austin have one night to unveil the mystery. The eponymous corpse has no outward signs of injury – yet it becomes apparent that she has been through a living hell. A storm rolls in and the Tildens find themselves trapped. But with whom are they trapped? With what?
There’s a definite sense of the procedural early on. Director Andre Ovredal (of Troll Hunter fame) throws us straight into the frank truth of the Tildens’ work, as a way of helping us acclimatise to the whole two-men-and-one-naked-girl dynamic. (Would marketing have entertained the sight of a fat woman on the slab? A naked man?) There are some neat, character-building details in these scenes. At one point a fly emerges from a corpse’s nose, and the Tildens take it in their stride. They’ve seen it all before.
Tommy especially. Unflinching with a swab, Dad is a granite-faced professional. We’re just here for the cause of death, he insists, not the whys and wherefores. He’s stoical, keeping schtum on the subject of his late wife. Perhaps this is why Austin wants out: he doesn’t want to become inured to death in the same way. Cox and Hirsch are consummate character actors; skilful without being distractingly starry. Their chemistry here is completely convincing.
The other starring role is Jane Doe herself, played with uncanny stillness by Olwen Kelly. Cleverly, Jane is lent a little personality, purely through the intensity of her dead stare, or by the angle of her head.
But the actors are merely there to carry the mystery and take part in the fairground ride. This is a film driven setpieces and makeup effects, and it is a triumph on both counts. As soon as a mortuary ankle bell is explained, we can feel the dread already. It’s disappointing to report that all too often the punchline is a cheap jump scare, but that should take nothing away from how Ovredal ratchets the tension through his use of space, shadow, and miniscule movement. This is a very atmospheric film, thanks to its storm-ravaged single location, and of course the mandatory presence of a demonic radio.
While the setup may be original (not to mention well-researched), Jane Doe gradually settles into genre expectations. Ovredal is clearly influenced by ‘80s and ‘90s horror. Along with visual nods to John Carpenter’s The Fog, there are hints of Re-Animator; not only in themes, but also in the pitch of the acting, and even in some of the stabbing music motifs. It lacks the intricate characterisation of Stuart Gordon’s classic, though.
So, it becomes a more conventional stalker horror – and a possibly supernatural one. For me, this is where the eyebrow rises. It’s a common problem, especially in this genre: The payoff doesn’t satisfy the premise. The problem is that the rules of Jane’s powers are never firmly established, resulting in an “anything goes” effect. Sure, this makes for good suspense, but it also dramatically undermines key scenes. A case of mistaken identity, for example, is crucial – but it’s based on a magic which has no narrative precedent, minimising its impact.
But let’s not get too critical of what is overall a classy, atmospheric and intense ride. What it lacks in payoff for the meticulous tension-building, it makes up for in excellent chemistry between the leads and a steady succession of well-crafted setpieces. It’s recommended – if not in the cinema then on a small bedroom TV, one dark and stormy night.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is out now in cinemas.