Supernatural horror is in a rut. It’s a profitable rut, though. Movies like The Conjuring 2, Ouija: Origin of Evil, and Lights Out impressed critics and moviegoers alike in 2016. That’s worth celebrating. But these successes homogenized almost the entire subgenre, making a lot of movies where a dark spirit latches onto a family. Maybe it’s a demon or looks vaguely demonic. The kids are in danger. Shadowy phantoms appear behind people in hallways or mirrors. Jump scares reign supreme. You know the drill.
But The Autopsy of Jane Doe, a new release from IFC Midnight, approaches the supernatural from a different angle. Emile Hirsch stars as Austin, a coroner-in-training and the great Brian Cox co-stars as his father, Tommy, who runs a morgue and crematorium in rural Virginia. One ordinary afternoon at the morgue, the sheriff (Michael McElhatton) brings in the body of an unidentified woman: Jane Doe.
Jane isn’t their typical case — there isn’t a single mark on her. But when the coroners begin their autopsy, they find that Jane is like a human puzzle box: open a compartment, find a clue. As Austin and Tommy unravel the mystery of Jane Doe, their afternoon becomes a terrifying search for the truth.
Norwegian director André Øvredal, best known for the excellent horror Trollhunter, is in top form here. Many of today’s supernatural crowd-pleasers seem to be directed around the jump scare. I love a good jump as much as the next horror fan, but building dread on dread is not a substitute for proper direction. And while there are plenty of scares to be found in Jane Doe, the direction is never overstated.
When Jane Doe arrives, she becomes the centerpiece of the film. But Jane isn’t just a silicon dummy on a table. She’s an honest-to-goodness character, played by Olwen Catherine Kelly. Kelly doesn’t have a single line of dialogue; she just lies on the slab, exposed. And though her body is a plot device, Øvredal shoots around it with a clinical respect.
While Austin and Tommy conduct the autopsy, the movie frequently cuts to her face, like it’s anticipating her reaction. Instead, we get Jane’s neutral, cataract stare. The effect is chilling, but also manages to create empathy for Jane. The most impressive feat in this little movie is Jane herself: a character who cannot speak, move, or emote, but who has a remarkable presence.
But Austin and Tommy are what carry the film’s plot forward, advancing the mystery. Luckily, that means Emile Hirsch and Brian Cox are shouldering most of the drama. It’s a pleasure to watch them work, even when the film takes a detour into more typical supernatural territory.
Even the more familiar elements of Jane Doe‘s horror — shadowy phantoms, icky corpses — feel a bit left of center of the usual fare. Despite The Autopsy of Jane Doe taking place in a stuffy basement morgue, the movie feels refreshing. Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing’s script is a smart and tightly wound story, brought to the screen with measured and tasteful direction. If you’re looking to close out 2016 with a gruesome-but-good horror movie, make it The Autopsy of Jane Doe.