The Autopsy of Jane Doe, from André Øvredal, is a finely-crafted, enjoyable, and legitimately scary film that is essentially one long bottled set piece in a beautiful (and wildly fanciful) imagination of a gothic subterranean mortuary. I want some of today’s lazier haunted house hallway fetishists (see: Wan) to study the opening five minutes of this film. It is exquisitely shot and edited, with remarkable visual continuity that, of all things, put me in mind of the best montage from the unstoppable duo of Scorsese and Schoonmaker.
I digress before I’ve begun. The story is inventive as far as ghost stories are concerned. Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch play a father-son pair of morticians whose latest job is to determine the cause of death for a distressingly gorgeous unidentified (aka “Jane Doe”) corpse found in the basement of a house belonging to a local family that died messily the night before. The gross investigation of her innards makes for surprisingly compelling mystery, as fun to watch for the deepening story as it is for the perfectly disgusting gore effects. Make no mistake: this film is nasty. A treat for those of us who enjoy such things but a soft tummy may not make it far.
The deconstruction of the Jane Doe’s body triggers all sorts of the usual ghostly awfulness, and the film doesn’t hold back on the cliches here— jumping cats and slamming doors and apparitions in mirrors and light bulbs bursting and radios switching themselves to ghastly old music – nothing surprises once the action ratchets up. By this time, however, we are so invested in these two guys that any injury to them is painful to witness — I haven’t cared this much about leads in a horror film in some time, unless we count Green Room which similarly gave us ample time to know and love its leads. The character interactions are smartly written, and in these performers’ hands they really shine. As for the story by the time the curtain falls, well, it’s fine. I was impressed enough with the superb craft of the film that I left off worrying whether the metaphysics were consistent (they aren’t) or the Jane Doe’s motivation, so to speak, makes sense (it doesn’t).
One of the film’s great strengths, and perhaps its most haunting visual (see banner), is the Jane Doe’s face. Olwen Kelly plays the body, and maintains a seemingly static expression that mirrors our fears. The film deals fairly frankly with the male gaze, centered as it is on an immobile, beautiful body onto which our leads (and us, via our attachment to the leads) project all manner of feeling. They suffer a terrible scare or injury, and the film guides us back to her face, time after time, where we see, or think we see, some indication of satisfaction or relief or anger in her expression. We interpret her face in light of her ghost’s actions. Whether Kelly in fact modulates her expression, I can’t tell. I imagine that this is the whole point. Just her face, and our gazing upon it, makes us doubt ourselves as reliable viewers. This is a brilliant technique, similar to the immoveable Shatner mask worn by The Shape in Carpenter’s Halloween. So much character expressed by so little.
At the film’s conclusion I wondered whether this might make a fine seed for a good old-fashioned horror series, with film after film remaking the core premise with a new cast of delightful, potentially doomed forensics investigators. I miss invincible killer serials. Jane Doe would be a fun one.