Guts Reaction: The Autopsy of Jane Doe

Olwen Kelly terrifies as Jane Doe. She may be the best thing in the movie.

Olwen Kelly terrifies as Jane Doe. She may be the best thing in the movie.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe is an American supernatural horror directed by Norwegian Andre Ovredal, who directed the brilliant Troll Hunter.

It stars Brian Cox as Tommy Tilden and Emile Hirsch as his son Austin.

Tommy is a a forensic pathologist and Emile works as his assistant. A harried local police chief ask them to rush through the autopsy of an unidentified young woman who’s been found in a basement. She’s in immaculate condition, but the rest of the house is full of blood-soaked corpses.

Tommy and Austin apply themselves with grim professionalism to trying to solve the mystery of how ‘Jane Doe’ died, but gradually things take an unnerving turn.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe does a beautiful job with a classic horror trope – our fear that the dead will return. It takes the people we trust to look violent death in the eye – forensic pathologists – and strips them down.

It also, I thought, takes a subtle swipe at expectations of female beauty. Maybe I'm just desensitized after watching The Corpse of Anna Fritz, which features graphic necrophilia. But Jane Doe’s body is eerily perfect and this is not a good thing.

The Autopsy has the most wonderful contrapuntal structure. There’s the obvious like a certain sound effect that appears at the beginning and the end of the movie with very different meaning. There’s relationship between father and son, marked by love and conflict.

Then there’s the less obvious, like Austin’s girlfriend’s benign insinuation into the male space of the morgue. This foreshadows the more sinister insinuation of Jane Doe.

These parallels and pairings should ring like bells. They should sing like a choir. And for the first half of the film, they do.

But it all gets lost in the second half. There’s nothing wrong with the acting – when has Brian Cox ever disappointed? But somehow these potentially powerful counterpoints miss each other, they don’t ring out. The denouement feels silly and anticlimactic.

The only exception to this is Jane Doe herself, played by Olwen Kelly. Her blank face terrified me in every shot.

And horror films often reveal wonders on a second or third viewing. I’d certainly watch this film again.