Fantastic Fest: The Autopsy of Jane Doe

Cracking sternums and cracking mysteries in horror whodunit

In the dark where they're searching for meaning: Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch in The Autopsy of Jane Doe

The human body is not a miracle. It is a puzzle to be solved, and nowhere more so than on the coroner's slab. The Autopsy of Jane Doe presents the cadaver as conundrum, but the fiendish answer is one the cutters may not want to know.

The titular Jane Doe (Olwen Catherine Kelly, and a succession of increasingly dissected body casts of her) should just be another corpse to be treated with a logical empathy by small-town father and son morticians Tommy and Austin Tilden (Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch).

Yet nothing is as it should be. Death is, after all, a process. A skilled coroner should be able to detect the stages and state of the corpse, but nothing about Jane makes sense. Her eyes are cloudy, but there is no lividity or rigor mortis. The internal and external examinations don't match up in the slightest. Nothing about her makes sense, but it is their job to find a cause of death.

The fact that she was found naked and half-buried in a shallow grave under a house that suffered an inexplicable bloodbath should be a clue that something is awry. But this is about the detective process, and bloodily the family begins to crack ribs and crack the puzzle.

It used to be that a disembowelment, no matter how clinical, would turn stomachs, and that was enough for a horror film. Yet CSI has inured audiences to gore, which is fine, but that doesn't derail the shocks of delivered by director André Øvredal (Trollhunter). Like CSI, he is most interested in the scientific method, in the coroner as polymath with insight into the fatal aspects of the human condition. Most movingly for a horror, he concentrates on the interpersonal tensions and love between father and son.

Yet Grissom and the LVPD crime lab would not expect the answer the Tildens find. In his English language debut, Øvredal constructs a sinister claustrophobia, that the increasingly beleaguered duo try to solve with science. He elegantly and disturbingly unwraps the enigma, dismantling this puzzle box and finally unveiling a creepy collage from this stack of clues.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe screens again Wednesday, Sept. 28, 9pm.

Fantastic Fest 2016 runs Sept. 22-29 at the Alamo South Lamar. Tickets and info at, and follow our ongoing coverage at

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