After a brutal mass murder in suburban America police uncover a corpse half-buried in a basement. Unlike other bodies littered throughout the house this corpse has no identification and no obvious signs of trauma. Baffled, and with half a dozen murders to solve, they take the mystery corpse to Tommy (Brian Cox [not that one]) and his son Austin (Emile Hirsch) who work as coroners in a basement beneath their funeral home. Tommy and Austin are tasked with finding a cause of death that night so set to work immediately. As they dig deeper (sorry) the more they reveal the more the mystery thickens. With a wry dark humour The Autopsy of Jane Doe gradually reveals itself to be the most terrifying film I have seen all year.
The beauty of The Autopsy of Jane Doe is that it is a film that evolves. Despite a consistently sinister tone to the score the beginning of the film is disarmingly chipper. We spend time with the father and son team, enjoy their interactions with one another and allow the combined acting power of Cox and Hirsch to create a convincing familial relationship that disarms and distracts from impending events. The comfort of the film’s beginning is undercut by the impressive prosthetics as the pair dissect a badly burned corpse. Little did I know that worse was to come.
From these humble beginnings the film really does evolve. In imperceptible increments director André Øvredal nudges the film from dark comedy into full-on horror with real scares, endless tension, and a pervading feeling of claustrophobia. It has been a long time since a single film has had me squinting my eyes as I brace for the scare I know is coming, jumping out of my seat in terror, and chuckling to myself for how petrified I am. With effects as simple as the sound of a bell or a shadow where it shouldn’t be, The Autopsy of Jane Doe had me on edge throughout. For all the blood and gore in the tamer moments the film nicely holds back when it really wants to give you a chill. The suggestion of something sinister is frequently more nerve shredding than the sight of it ever is and Øvredal knows when to hold back and when to fill your eyes with horror.
Having such a strong pair of actors in Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch no doubt helps to elevate the film. It forces you to take the film seriously and they really help to sell the more outlandish moments. I don’t know what else to say without spoiling the film’s many delights/surprises/horrors but just know that it is an efficient, enjoyable, and devilishly humourous horror that rarely puts a step wrong.
I laughed, I screamed, I loved it.