When it comes to successful horror films, setting is very, very important. Think about the grimy backwoods locales from “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” or the empty forest landscapes of “The Blair Witch Project.”
“The Autopsy of Jane Doe” is a slightly above-average film with a delightfully creepy setting: a small-town morgue. That setting, combined with solid acting and patient directing, results in a highly enjoyable, nicely nasty flick.
It plays the Screening Room Cinema Cafe from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2, and for horror junkies, it’s worth seeing. In fact, the film elicits more scares than recent horror hits like “Lights Out,” “Don't Breathe” and “The Conjuring 2.”
The latest from André Øvredal, the Norwegian filmmaker best known for 2010’s “Trollhunter,” “Jane Doe” takes a number of icky elements — morgues, dismembered corpses, lengthy autopsies, bells hung to the toes of corpses in case of, well, waking up — and pieces them together to create something memorable.
Brian Cox (a veteran of the “Bourne” and “X-Men” franchises) and Emile Hirsch (“Into the Wild,” “Speed Racer”) play father and son coroners Tommy and Austin Tilden. While the old man is clearly a lifer, Austin ponders something different for himself and girlfriend Emma (Ophelia Lovibond).
And who wouldn’t, when the job involves cases like Jane Doe, a corpse that arrives on their doorstep without a name or backstory? Doe was discovered by the local authorities, a dead body at the scene of a seemingly bloody crime.
Tommy is tasked with conducting a quick autopsy, and after nearly leaving for a night with Emma, Austin decides to stick around while a storm rages outside. (Big mistake, dude.)
The autopsy uncovers some bizarre details about the corpse — a severed tongue, shattered bones without traces of outer injury, cloudy eyes. They also discover a type of peat under nails found only in the northern United States.
The film offers occasional insight into the mindset of a coroner. While Austin ponders who Jane Doe is, Tommy reminds him that “down here, if you can’t see it, touch it, it doesn’t matter.”
Soon, lights begin to flicker, mysterious sounds are heard, and, oddly, the radio begins to play “Open Up Your Heart (And Let the Sunshine In).”
The film’s big reveal is a slight letdown, a left-field explanation that we’ve seen and heard a few too many times. Yet it’s still reasonably effective, and adds a sense of impending doom to the proceedings. Indeed, it's a very dark conclusion, one that is fitting but a bit mean to its lead characters. The audience grows quite invested in Tommy and Austin, and that’s thanks to the actors.
Casting Cox, who originated the role of Hannibal Lecter in Michael Mann’s “Manhunter,” is a nice touch. Cox has been consistently effective for decades, and here has the chance to play a loving father, rather than his usual glowering heavy.
Hirsch’s road to stardom took a sharp turn after “Speed Racer” crashed, and some personal legal troubles did not help. But as Austin, he shows the likability and everyman charm that proved so winning in films like “Into the Wild” and “Milk.” Austin is the audience conduit, and that makes Hirsch a wonderful choice for the role.
Olwen Kelly has the rather thankless part of Jane Doe, a role that requires her to be nude from start to finish. There are few other speaking parts, as the majority of “Autopsy” takes place in the morgue, with just Jane, Austin and Tommy.
That’s a good thing. Director Øvredal lets the tension and claustrophobia build, and the end result is chilling.
“The Autopsy of Jane Doe”
3 stars (out of 4)
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Brian Cox, Ophelia Lovibond, and Olwen Kelly
Director: André Øvredal
Running time: 86 minutes
Rating: R for bloody horror violence, unsettling grisly images, graphic nudity, and language.
The lowdown: A father and son, both coroners, are pulled into a complex mystery while conducting the autopsy of a young woman.