The body of a woman is found partially buried in the basement of a home with multiple murder victims. The identity and cause of death is clear for all the victims, except the woman. Not only is there no clear cause of death, but no one knows who she is or where she came from. The sheriff entrusts the body with a father and son coroner team to find out who she is and how she died before the press gets wind of the situation. As the father and son work through the night to conduct their autopsy strange things begin to happen. There is more to this Jane Doe than meets the eye.
This film is a horror lover’s dream. Director André Øvredal has dabbled in the horror genre with the delightful Trollhunter in 2010, but this is the first truly terrifying film he has worked on. The audience is immediately thrown into the crime scene where the body of Jane Doe is discovered. At once we are apart of the mystery and the investigation into the odd circumstances surrounding what happened in the house and who this woman is. When we are introduced to the father and son coroner team, the filmmakers do an excellent job of quickly developing their characters and their relationship. This allows the plot to move swiftly into the autopsy phase. There is further character development during the scientific study of Jane Doe, but you feel like you already have a grasp of the characters before that.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe perfectly blends science and the supernatural. As the coroners are performing the autopsy they try to find a way to rationalize all the unexplainable wounds they discover. Things eventually become more and more strange, leading to the supernatural happenings and the realization that nothing about the corpse is normal. It is filled with secrets and things that should not be possible. The further into the autopsy the duo goes, the more strange and terrifying everything becomes. On more than one occasion I hid my face behind my hands in anticipation of what scary things were to come, but at the same time I couldn’t look away.
The two leads in this film are wonderful. Emile Hirsch (The Girl Next Door, Into the Wild) gives his usual excellent performance as the son, Austin Tilden. While he is science-minded like his father, Hirsch shows that Austin is the first to notice the strange happenings and accept them for what they are. I especially enjoyed Brian Cox (Morgan, Trick ‘r Treat) as the father and widower, Tommy Tilden. Cox creates a perfect blend of characteristics for Tommy. Tommy is sad and lonely after the death of his wife, but he gets through each day by burying himself in his work as well as with the support of his son, but he does it all with a sense of humor. This is conveyed by Cox in such a way that Tommy feels like a real, complex person. I also have to give a nod to Jane Doe herself, played by Olwen Catherine Kelly (Darkness on the Edge of Town). While she plays a lifeless corpse throughout the film, I was impressed by the fact that not once did I look at her as a living person. I can’t even imagine what the workday would look like laying naked on the slab each day, trying to hide your breathing and minimizing any movement during filming.
Horror films can often feel real, depending on the content and how they are made. The scientific aspect of this film keeps it somewhat grounded in reality, but what really makes this film feel so real is the effects. Before seeing the film I was expecting the autopsy itself to happen slightly off camera so the audience never really sees anything. What surprised me is this film successfully hides certain terrifying aspects while keeping others in plain sight. Much to my delight you never really see the things lurking in the dark, yet you see everything that happens to Jane Doe on the slab. Not only do you see the entire process of the autopsy, but the practical effects are so well done that it feels like you are watching an actual corpse being dissected. Everything is masterfully done from the smaller effects like cutting into the skin, to the bigger ones like cutting open her ribs to examine the organs. It was all beautiful, terrifying, and lifelike.
This is a very successful jump into the horror genre for André Øvredal. The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a truly frightening film. It contains many of my favorite aspects of horror films: science, supernatural happenings, great acting, a unique story, excellent practical effects, and it doesn’t reveal so much that it takes away from the scares. This is the kind of film that makes your hair stand on end and gives you the feeling that someone, or something, is lurking behind you. I imagine you could watch this film repeatedly and see new, small details you never noticed before. I can honestly say this is one of the best horror films of 2016, if not one of the best I have seen in years.
OVERALL RATING: 9.5/10