In general, gruesome viscera and good acting make for strange bedfellows. But they get along quite nicely in “The Autopsy of Jane Doe.”
The action of Andre Ovredal’s claustrophobic thriller takes place almost entirely in the cellar morgue of a rural Virginia funeral parlor.
The father-and-son team of Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austin (Emile Hirsch) Tilden spend a stormy (naturally) night dissecting the body of a beautiful young woman brought in by the local sheriff.
The cops have found three members of a local family murdered in their home. And down in the basement they discovered the nude, half-buried corpse of a girl (Olwen Kelley). They have no clue as to who she is — she’s designated a “Jane Doe” — how she got there or what caused her death.
Answering that last question is the job of Tommy and Austin, who methodically and dispassionately go about the gory business of taking the young woman apart, piece by piece.
Almost immediately there are mysteries. Though there are no signs of trauma on her body, her wrists and ankles have been shattered (the result of shackles?). Her tongue has been cut out. There are traces of peat under her nails. The morticians discover sexual trauma. (Perhaps she is a victim of sex traffickers?)
Once she’s cut open things get weirder. There are scars on her internal organs. And the inside of her body cavity is covered with tattoos of rune-like symbols.
About this time the electricity goes out, the exit is blocked by a wind-downed tree…and the refrigerated drawers that previous held bodies are now found to be empty.
Writer/director Ovredal, whose 2010 Norwegian film “Trollhunter” was a delicious blend of fright, fantasy and sly satire, goes for a more conventional horror film here.
But he has the good sense to cast top-notch actors. As is so often the case in horror films, the big reveal is something less than convincing, but Cox and Hirsch grab us with their portrayals of rational scientific types rattled to their cores by the crazy shit going down around them.
Warning: “Autopsy” is borderline documentary in the depiction of a post-mortem examination. Ovredal’s camera practically goes swimming in innards, and there’s nothing quite so creepy as the sound of a giant pair of clippers snipping through human rib bones.
The fact that all this carnage is being wrought upon a totally passive, lovely young woman makes for a very disturbing mix of sex and violence.
The queasy have been warned.