Is there anything creepier than a room made for the dead? Everything in a morgue or embalming room is cold, antiseptic, and hard. There isn’t a cushion in site on which to rest a corpse. Why would there be? It’s not as if the dead will complain. They’re just motionless slabs of meat and bone, gristle and organs. The difference between the living and dead is rendered stark in rooms like this, where no living person could tolerate lying on stainless steel tables, their heads resting on blocks. Everything about these rooms would cause intolerable pain in the living. But, again, the dead won’t complain.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe, from writers Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing, and directed by André Øvredal, tells the story of the eponymous Jane Doe and her visit to the slab.
Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch play father and son Tommy and Austin Tilden, who run a funeral home somewhere in the Northeastern United States (exteriors were played by the Home Farm in Kent, England, while interiors were shot on a soundstage). It being a small community, the Tildens also serve as the county’s medical examiners.
Nearby, sheriff’s deputies discover a gruesome scene of murder, wherein an entire household has been murdered. Down in the basement, another discovery has been made, in the form of a pristine corpse. This Jane Doe body is taken to the Tildens for immediate examination.
Despite showing no outward signs of injury, Jane Doe (Olwen Catherine Kelly, whose role could not have been easy) suffered egregious harm before her death. The Tildens find shattered wrists and ankles, pierced organs, and lungs blackened by fire. The extent of the injuries should have made for a hideous corpse, and yet there she lies, pale and angelic. The visual symbolism of the pure, beautiful, virginal white woman is a little heavy, but it gets the point across.
As the Tildens become more confused about Jane Doe, supernatural shenanigans begin in the basement mortuary. After a power outage, seemingly caused by a raging thunderstorm outside, other bodies in the cold lockers come up missing. Tommy and Austin are now freaked out, and try to flee, but Øvredal and company don’t let that happen. What follows are the Tildens’ frantic efforts to leave, while avoiding as best they can all the nasty dead from the lockers. Of course, the body of Jane Doe has something to do with all of this.
The setting of this film provides as much tension as the plot, as Øvredal created a confined space that is aged, claustrophobic, and inescapable. That tension, combined with the inherent dread of a morgue, is a constant presence in this film, and primes the audience for all the scary stuff. There is a fair amount of horror film convention in how the scares are delivered, yet it all builds on top of the unease created by the setting. It ends up being a powerful combo. The special effects crew delivered very impressive gore. The corpses in this film are terrible to behold, and that includes the outwardly pristine Jane Doe.
As for the cast, Cox and Hirsch are much more talent than a small horror film like this normally sees. Their performances are excellent to the point of natural effortlessness. They are case studies in how capable performers can elevate a small film past any cliché or pretensions. Combined with Øvredal’s skilled direction and storytelling, what could have been a throwaway horror flick resembles a very good Off-Broadway drama. It’s scary, to boot.