She won’t be receiving any awards attention for her role as an unidentified corpse in “The Autopsy of Jane Doe,” but Olwen Catherine Kelly’s performance — in which she lies naked and motionless on a metal slab for 99 minutes — is a profoundly morbid testament to the notion that less is more. At first seeming more like a marvelously effective prop than she does an actual character, Kelly’s frigid corpse soon thaws into a gruesome display of the Kuleshov effect, her blank stare growing a touch more evil every time “Trollhunter” director André Øvredal cuts back to it.
The dark heart of a horror movie that begins as an atmospheric mystery before flatlining into something much schlockier, Kelly doesn’t have to move a muscle in order to command your full attention. No matter how far “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” slides off the rails, she lies there stiff as a board, brimming with sinister potential.
Øvredal, who was apparently inspired to direct a horror movie after he caught a screening of James Wan’s “The Conjuring,” is gift-wrapped a brilliant premise for his genre debut. The clever story, hatched by screenwriters Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing, begins with the police coming across a messy crime scene in the suburbs of Grantham, Virginia. Four people have been murdered in a house, and each of them appears to have been killed as they attempted to escape. The plot thickens, however, when the authorities discover a nude woman (Kelly) half-buried in the basement, her body outwardly absent any of the other victims’ gross disfigurements.
Desperate for answers that he can provide the press, the local sheriff races the cadaver to the most reputable morgue in town, a family business run out of an underground cellar by third-generation owner Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) and his ambivalent son, Austin (Emile Hirsch). What was the cause of the girl’s death? Why is her tongue missing, her blood wet, her nose twitching? Why do coroners always seem to hire their kids? All of these questions and more will be compellingly asked and frustratingly answered over the course of the dark and stormy night to come.
Leveraging the inherent spookiness of his primary location, Øvredal exploits every inch of the Tilden family morgue for its macabre potential. And while it may sound easy to wring scares out of such a naturally frightening environment, the unnerving effectiveness of his film’s first half suggests that it’s harder — and possibly more rewarding — to chill audiences when you’ve already given them goosebumps. But “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” never takes its ghoulishness for granted. Austin and Tommy work in a place that looks like a horror movie on a good day, and the movie’s best moments are spent convincing them to grow suspicious of the nightmare in which they’ve spent every day of their professional lives. Between the dead rats, the storm brewing outside, and the creepy FM radio that keeps flickering to the same old song, things are plenty weird even before the coroners carve into the strangest case of their careers.
Fair warning: Øvredal doesn’t skimp on the blood and guts. Despite being interrupted by the usual tedium of things leaping out of the shadows, “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” is most unsettling when it keeps the lights on and lingers on gnarly footage of Tommy peeling apart his new cadaver and poking around inside like he’s trying to crack the Da Vinci Code. As the coroners continue to discover sick new clues, each more sickeningly intriguing than the last, the mounting dread generated by the film’s dead character comes to compensate for the dullness of its live ones. Cox and Hirsch are both great at portraying that queasy slide from stoicism to panic, but the script gives them precious little else to do — Austin’s hesitation to take over the business never pays off, and the same is true of a thread about the late Mrs. Tilden, whose death never seems as pertinent as it should to a story about how her husband would rather disembowel strangers than directly confront his grief.
In fairness, the film seems aware of these problems, as it later abandons them completely in favor of pursuing a much louder and less interesting narrative, one that sacrifices an expert sense of foreboding for a generic cacophony of things going bump in the night. At one point it seems as though the script might pivot in order to reframe itself as a meditation on the historical violence against female bodies, but it buries that idea before it’s even been fully exhumed.
While it would be ruinous to divulge the particulars, it’s safe to say that you’ll be able to identify the film’s cause of death long before those Tilden boys solve the mystery of their Jane Doe. All the same, Øvredal’s winking final shot implores you to remember that her name is Olwen Catherine Kelly, and that her performance here is anything but lifeless.
“The Autopsy of Jane Doe” opens in theaters on December 21.