A coroner and his son attempt to solve the mystery of how a seemingly unscathed woman’s corpse ended up in a murdered family’s basement in this psychological-horror film from Norwegian director André Øvredal. The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) doesn’t have a complicated story, but is creepy and compelling enough to rise above its peers.
Coroner Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) and his son Austin (Emile Hirsch) run a routine practice in a small town morgue, but the discovery of the pale, lifeless body of a black-haired woman (Olwen Catherine Kelly) in a murdered family’s basement changes all that. Austin has plans to take his girlfriend Emma (Ophelia Lovibond) to the movies, but something doesn’t feel right when the sheriff wheels in a fresh corpse from a crime scene, so he postpones the date.
As Tommy and Austin begin the autopsy on the mysterious woman, they uncover clues to how she died. All her injuries are internal, and they discover evidence that she’s much, much older than she appears. The more they cut into her, however, the more unsettling events begin to manifest around the morgue. Something unseen traps and pursues them, with predictable results.
It’s eventually revealed Jane Doe was a witch who was brutally tortured and magically bound in a prison of her own flesh in seventeenth-century New England. She inflicted torment on everyone who had custody of her body, so it was shuttled around until ending up in the morgue, where only Tommy and Austin had the tools and expertise to solve the mystery.
Although the historical premise is interesting, I was disappointed the filmmakers didn’t focus more on the relationship between Tommy and his son. Early in the film, Tommy appears to be nearing retirement and hopes Austin will follow in his footsteps (although coroners are usually elected). Austin is caught between loyalty to his father and starting a new life with Emma. The violent deaths of everyone involved means this conflict is never resolved. It adds depth to the characters but ultimately leaves the audience feeling like something is missing.
Autopsy is reminiscent of Deadgirl (2008), which had a similar if less clinical premise. In Deadgirl, two teen boys discover the nude body of a woman chained in the basement of an abandoned asylum. After discovering she is alive, they soon also discover she apparently can’t die. Both films appeal to a certain morbid voyeurism and raise questions about the male fascination with the female form. Both feature two men cutting into and otherwise freely manipulating an imprisoned and otherwise helpless woman’s body.
In Autopsy, the woman is a witch. In Deadgirl, she is some kind of zombie. Both eventually lash out at their captors, inflicting torment and death in retribution. It’s implied the suffering of these men is justified under lex talionis–“law of retaliation”–in which their punishment corresponds in kind and degree to the woman’s injury. Quite literally in the case of Jane Doe, the exact injuries she suffered are magically inflicted on Tommy the coroner.
Brian Cox and Olwen Catherine Kelly’s performances are largely responsible for The Autopsy of Jane Doe‘s success. Brian Cox, an Emmy Award-winning Scottish actor, has had a prolific career and brings warmth and nuance to his role. Olwen Catherine Kelly, an Irish model, isn’t an experienced actress, has no lines, and doesn’t even move in her role as Jane Doe, but the fact she is able to play a convincing corpse without CGI is remarkable in itself. André Øvredal thought a dummy or prosthetics would appear fake to audiences, so he used as little as possible.
Overall, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a solid horror flick that isn’t pointlessly grotesque or reliant on jump scares. It adheres to the KISS principle of filmmaking: Keep It Simple, Stupid. A simple premise, a few key characters, and a single mystery means this film avoids many pitfalls common to the genre.