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For obvious reasons, morgues and morticians have long appealed to horror movie makers. Norwegian director Andre Ovredal’s English-language debut, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, is more conventional in style and tone than his 2010 breakthrough film, the found-footage comedy thriller Trollhunter. This contemporary exercise in American Gothic has a U.S. setting, though it was largely shot on a London soundstage with a mostly European cast and crew.
Not for the squeamish, Ovredal’s chilly slab of body horror ultimately proves less than the sum of its forensically fileted parts. That said, this morbid three-hander slices through enough main arteries to quench the bloodlust of undemanding genre fans and horror-friendly festivals. World premiered in Toronto’s Midnight Madness section last week, The Autopsy of Jane Doe makes its European debut at the London Film Festival next month. IFC has purchased U.S. rights.
Following a mysterious suburban massacre in a small Virginia town, police recover the half-buried body of a young woman (Olwen Kelly) and drop her at the local morgue for an urgent postmortem. A sprawling subterranean labyrinth, the morgue is a long-established family business run by gruff widower Tony Tilden (Brian Cox) and his son Austin (Emile Hirsch). Night is falling, and Austin is due to meet girlfriend Emma (Ophelia Lovibond) for a date. But he reluctantly postpones in order to help Dad solve the puzzle of this newly arrived Jane Doe.
Sliced open like a ripe melon, the nameless young woman’s exquisite corpse yields a goldmine of secrets, including broken bones, internal scars and burns that belie her pristine outer skin. Initially suspecting some kind of ritual human sacrifice, Tony and Austin dig deeper, finding runic symbols and occult spells that seem to link the girl to a notoriously dark chapter in American history. As an apocalyptic thunderstorm gathers force outside, events take a creepy turn inside the morgue. Lights flicker, radios crackle with eerie old songs, and dead bodies stir from their slabs.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe starts strongly, its tightly focused narrative fueled by carefully calibrated dread, queasily graphic surgical detail, and a promising subtext of science vs. superstition. But the plot comes off the rails around the midway point as gripping suspense gives way to heavy-handed jump scares and hokey paranormal speculation. The blame for this lies not with Ovredal’s punchy direction but with screenwriters Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing. Much like Jane Doe, their absurd leaps of logic do not stand up well to dissection.
Hirsch and Cox are both seasoned screen players who bring more subtlety than the material demands, though the latter has a poor grip on his American accent, veering perilously close to Sean Connery levels of indelible Scottishness in places. The young Irish actress Olwen Kelly also deserves special mention for her unorthodox performance as the corpse, studying yoga and meditation to help her lie perfectly still for hours.
Seemingly torn between more refined art house pretensions and knowingly pulpy schlock, The Autopsy of Jane Doe ultimately feels like an unsatisfactory compromise between the two. It is mostly impressive as a technical achievement, especially Matt Gant’s roomy yet claustrophobic set design, Roman Osin’s kinetic camerawork and Krystian Mallet’s superlative prosthetics.
Production companies: 42, IM Global, Impostor Pictures
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Brian Cox, Ophelia Lovibond, Michael McElhatton, Olwen Kelly
Director: Andre Ovredal
Screenwriters: Ian Goldberg, Richard Naing
Producers: Fred Berger, Eric Garcia, Ben Pugh, Rory Aitken
Executive producers: Stuart Ford, Matt Jackson, Steven Squillante
Cinematographer: Roman Osin
Editor: Patrick Larsgaard
Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
Production designer: Matt Gant
Sales company: IM Global
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Midnight Madness)
No rating, 86 minutes
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