Making good on the promise of his very homegrown fantasy-action hit “Trollhunter,” Norwegian helmer Andre Ovredal’s first English-language feature is something quite different: a chamber horror piece in which a corpse’s stillness only grows more ominously unreliable as it’s dissected. “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” stars Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch as father-and-son morticians whose slab subject seems to exert considerable supernatural will on one stormy night, despite her apparently very dead state. A raucous crowd-pleaser at TIFF’s midnight premiere, this taut, yet often slyly funny scarefest should do well with genre fans. IFC and Raven Banner have picked up distribution rights for the U.S. and Canada, respectively.
Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing’s nicely honed screenplay opens with police investigating a bloody crime scene: Four ordinary residents have been found slaughtered in their small-town Virginia home. All signs indicate that they were trying to leave the house … but there’s no evidence that an intruder actually broke in. Adding to the mystery is the discovery of the outwardly pristine body of a young woman (Olwen Kelly) half-buried in the cellar. With pressure to deliver some kind of news to the press by morning, the sheriff (Michael McElhatton) asks his local morticians to perform a forensic analysis immediately, in hopes of gaining any clues as to what happened.
Tilden Morgue & Crematorium has been a local family-owned operation for a century. The current generations in charge are benevolently gruff — sardonic widower Tony (Cox) and son Austin (Hirsch). Though the latter has a date with his girlfriend, Emma (Ophelia Lovibond), he postpones it a few hours in order to help dad with this rush job. Externally, the nameless, ethereally lovely victim bears no signs of harm at all. In fact, she’s even curiously free of rigor mortis. But once they probe inward, it’s a whole different matter, with evidence of extreme abuse that really ought to have at least caused visible outer bruising.
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Strange phenomena begin occurring as soon as the duo start cutting open their subject, as if some force has been unleashed. It would be unfair to spoil the various surprises that subsequently occur, but suffice it to say the trapped protagonists soon wish they could leave their basement workspace (a neat job of production design by Matt Gant), especially since the corpses already on ice abruptly stop resting in peace.
While “Autopsy” lives up to its title, providing plenty of grisly medical gore, the forensics induce less squirming than the exacting yet playful way Ovredal keeps making us anticipate more unnatural acts as the Tildens realize something is seriously amiss. Script and direction strike a nice balance between macabre humor and pure suspense, with the very able lead thesps hitting droll notes without ever diluting the material by camping it up. They’ve got good chemistry, and while it’s not the sort of enterprise that requires fully dimensioned characters, both film and cast do their best to provide just that. (Kelly deserves applause of a different kind for enduring a role which must have required the patience of Job.)
In its last lap, tense action is replaced somewhat by speculative explication, and the resolution isn’t quite as big a payoff as might be hoped. But to that point, the thrill ride that is “Autopsy of Jane Doe” is so much fun that one can forgive the climax for failing to top the buildup. Assembly is first-rate in all departments, with sharp contributions from Roman Osin’s widescreen lensing, Patrick Larsgaard’s precise editing, and an alarm-heightening score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans.