André Øvredal’s anatomical horror mystery juxtaposes a genuine human warmth with its cold corpse – and has brains, heart and guts
Words Greg Taylor
Tthe human body is a fascinating and horrifying machine, its fragility and visceral potential the raw currency of horror. We are fascinated and repelled, sometimes equally, as bodies are gleefully pierced, flayed, pummelled and crushed for our Grand Guignol entertainment, death a gory but safe spectacle, satiating a base human drive for extremity of experience.
In André Øvredal’s brilliant, gleefully enjoyable horror mystery The Autopsy of Jane Doe, the focus is on the tragic theatre of a single human corpse – a puzzle, an esoteric text, and quite possibly a deadly threat, Hitchcock’s famed MacGuffin made flesh.
In a defiantly old-fashioned small town family coroners, the corpse of a beautiful young woman (Olwen Catherine Kelly, making a memorable impression for a cadaver) is brought in one night from an inexplicable and gruesome crime scene. Unlike the other victims, she has no obvious injuries and the father and son team have only a few hours to give the local sheriff a cause of death before the impending media storm. Every incision, every peel and reveal deepens the mystery – why is there peat beneath Jane Doe’s finger nails, why are her eyes that milky, eerie grey, how are her lungs so charred when her skin is so pristine? And why does it sound like something is stirring in the dark corners of the cavernous mortuary?
Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch are agreeable, humorous guides for the gruesome deep dive – Cox the empirical, set-in-his-ways old traditionalist, Hirsch the energetic young buck, still learning his trade and always on the lookout for meaning in the madness. As they bicker and banter and listen to old school rock and roll, a genuine human warmth emerges, in juxtaposition with the cold corpse on the slab, and as their family history is slowly peeled back writers Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing mine a rich if understated seam of pathos. These are characters we want to survive the dark night.
And the night grows very dark indeed, as Øvredal builds from forensic scientific inquiry to a cacophony of gothic horrors, using all the terror tropes at his disposal with the deft hand of a master. There’s a storm, there’s a creepy malfunctioning radio, flickering lights, a freezer-full of restless dead – there’s even a cat thrown into the mix, and of course there’s Jane Doe’s corpse, staring creepily into space, her secrets spilling out like a slow-acting poison. It’s a gruesome, scary film to be sure, but like the director’s wonderful Troll Hunter a tinge of absurdist humour and welcome unwillingness to go too repulsive (the autopsy in The Silence of the Lambs, for example, is way more distressing) makes The Autopsy of Jane Doe more of a giddy crowd-pleaser than a gruelling exercise in pure terror.
It’s a genuinely frightening and funny thrill-ride that will have audiences shrieking and giggling in dismay as Jane Doe reveals her awful mysteries
Deft writing and fat-free direction ensure The Autopsy of Jane Doe works equally well as a cerebral mystery and a chilling horror. It even has a fresh and thoughtful take on its supernatural themes that resonate beyond the genre and make it worthy of the kind of serious discussion that so much throw-away modern horror simply doesn’t deserve. At its core though, it’s a genuinely frightening and funny thrill-ride that will have audiences shrieking and giggling in dismay as Jane Doe reveals her awful mysteries. It’s an entertaining, satisfying and fun film with brain, heart and guts, an undoubted must-see, preferably on a date with someone who has no idea of what’s about to unfurl.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe
Now available to stream on Amazon instant video