In his English-language debut, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Norwegian director André Øvredal takes a more conventional, straightforward approach to storytelling than he did with his 2010 breakthrough horror comedy, Trollhunter, and the results are downright riveting. Anchored by two strong performances from Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch, The Autopsy of Jane Doe moves with a laser-focused sense of precision, with the mystery surrounding the titular corpse growing more intriguing the more that’s revealed about her state. With his latest directorial effort, Øvredal has proven himself to be an accomplished storyteller in two languages.

After a blood-soaked murder shocks a sleepy small town in Virginia, local police are baffled to find the corpse of an unknown woman buried inside the basement of the crime scene. With the police seeking answers for who this woman is and what happened to her, the corpse is dropped off at the local mortuary run by Tony Tilden (Cox) and his son, Austin (Hirsch), who have to work overnight to get the sheriff a cause of death by the morning, when he’s planning on giving a press conference about everything that transpired at the scene. Tony and Austin quickly realize that their new arrival is anything but an ordinary body, though, and as they work to figure out what happened to this “Jane Doe,” things take an eerie and chilling turn once the father and son find themselves at odds with supernatural forces neither are prepared to deal with.

Let me admit this right off the bat: I could spend hours watching Brian Cox reading a phone book and be absolutely enthralled, which means I was immediately on board for The Autopsy of Jane Doe once I heard that he was involved, especially since he would be working with the man who gave us one of the best modern found footage movies to date. I’d also be remiss to not give Hirsch his proper due for his work on this. Hirsch is an actor that I’ve followed for some time (I loved him in films like Alpha Dog, Killer Joe, and Lords of Dogtown), and for as much of a force that Cox is in this film, Hirsch is equally great. Huge props are also in order for actress Olwen Kelly, who spends 95% of the movie on the slab as the body of Jane Doe, and while there are certain sequences that involve a prop corpse, the fact that most of what we see is just her lying there is absolutely astonishing in retrospect, because I was absolutely fooled.

On paper, Jane Doe doesn’t sound like a concept that would ignite any real excitement—two guys performing an autopsy on a corpse for 95 minutes, how interesting could that really be?—but I have to admit that the way Øvredal embraces his actors and their talent here is really enjoyable to watch. His visual style perfectly compliments the dread-soaked script from Richard Naing and Ian B. Goldberg as well.

I knew this film was going to be something special when at one point in the movie, we see Austin lament to his girlfriend (the lovely Ophelia Lovibond) his need to move on from the family business, but it’s never a point that he brings up with his dad directly. So many times (and I mean, SO MANY) when you’re watching a movie and something like this is brought up, you pretty much know it’s something that’s going to come into play later on. Not with Jane Doe; Øvredal and his screenwriters instead decide to make this an internal struggle for Austin, something he carries within himself for the duration of the film, and having such a nuanced touch like that really stood out to me as an earmark of a script that wasn’t looking to tell the same old story we’ve seen hundreds of times before.

While I’ll admit that it takes a helluva lot to scare me these days when I’m watching a movie, there were a few moments during The Autopsy of Jane Doe when I was particularly unnerved. There are some genuinely great moments of horror to be found in this film, but the scenes that were particularly effective for me were when the Tildens have to crack open the mysterious body and begin to put together the circumstances of just how this woman came to be in the state that she was found in. Admittedly, I have an enormous fear of death, and just spending an entire movie watching an autopsy unfold in such a graphic manner was a good way to remind me that I really do not want to die. Like, ever.

It’s a shame that we had to wait six years for a new film from Øvredal, but it was well worth it, because he’s crafted a genuinely intriguing and compelling gothic mystery with The Autopsy of Jane Doe, a film carried by an incredible actors who give the story a sense of depth that may not have existed had lesser talents been involved.

Movie Score: 4/5

  • Heather Wixson
    About the Author - Heather Wixson

    Heather A. Wixson was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, until she followed her dreams and moved to Los Angeles in 2009. A 14-year veteran in the world of horror entertainment journalism, Wixson fell in love with genre films at a very early age, and has spent more than a decade as a writer and supporter of preserving the history of horror and science fiction cinema. Throughout her career, Wixson has contributed to several notable websites, including Fangoria, Dread Central, Terror Tube, and FEARnet, and she currently serves as the Managing Editor for Daily Dead, which has been her home since 2013. She's also written for both Fangoria Magazine & ReMind Magazine, and her latest book project, Monsters, Makeup & Effects: Volume One will be released on October 20, 2021.