There has been an incident in a house in New England where police have discovered dead bodies lying around in a house, obviously the location of a violent crime. They have no leads, however, and are even more baffled when they venture down to the basement and see someone has been digging there: a young woman's corpse is half exposed in the dirt, and they have no idea who she is or what she died of. There's only one option, and needing answers fast they cart the woman's cadaver off to the morgue where an autopsy can be performed by Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austin (Emile Hirsch), a father and son team who have become renowned as the best around at such a task. They're not blasé about their work, but it's safe to say between them they've seen it all...
Or they thought they had until this body was brought in, named Jane Doe by the police as the traditional equivalent of John Doe, for nobody knows who she is. There was a heavy air of mystery hanging over this horror that was perhaps deflated when the time came to explain what was going on, so much so that even as the end credits rolled the whole affair was coming across as extremely reluctant to admit everything about its title character, a remarkably sustained performance by Olwen Catherine Kelly thanks to her having to lie completely still and mostly in the nude for the entirety of her performance. She did not even receive any lines to speak, but as to whether she was able to move, well, that would be telling.
Horror fans were so used to watching fictional injuries exacted upon living characters that Jane Doe concocted something more original, as we cannot see where the corpse has been at a disadvantage or if there has been any violence inflicted on it, as she could have been poisoned for all we know. Indeed, the people who do Jane the most damage are the two coroners, two men cutting up a young woman who may not be too happy about that treatment of her corporeal form in spite of not being present within it in spirit. Now, obviously a coroner cannot do their job without some form of dissection, it is part of the process, but this film had a take on that, where it was necessary to forget there had ever been a person inhabiting these bodies they examine.
Jane does not want to be forgotten, however, and does her darnedest to remind the two men that there was someone alive in there once, and it was her, or at least that's what you felt was implied as she never says so in so many words. Director André Øvredal had made his name internationally with Trollhunter, a semi-jokey horror set in the great outdoors that was a million miles away from the confined and claustrophobic location in this, though while Autopsy had its fans, it was not a breakout hit in the same manner as his previous movie. He said he wanted to make a horror with a straightforward premise after being inspired by The Conjuring, and though the plots were different, and this was rather more thoughtful, at least in the earlier stages where its quiet unease had the viewer's mind racing, you could perceive the same mechanisms behind their impetus.
Yet while The Conjuring, and indeed its sequel, were religious propaganda piggybacking on a very loose premise of truth, Autopsy had a more social agenda, wondering about scapegoating, the subjugation of women by men in communities that should have known better, and how there's something about women that can make men disquieted, as if they don't understand how their minds work. This could have been the basis for a series of "women, can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em" jokes, but it went to genuinely provocative places instead while remaining an identifiable chiller with all the gore and jump scares that had grown to be staples of the genre; it wasn't profound, exactly, but adjust to its rhythm and think on how Jane is being treated, like an object, a locked room mystery housed in a single body, and you would get on with it pretty well, though the witchcraft angle suggested a need to play it safe within its boundaries when something that broke through them with more narrative satisfaction could have dispelled the slight disappointment engendered by the last act. Nevertheless, worth any horror fan's time. Music by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans.
[Lionsgate's Blu-ray presents the film well, with subtitles for the hard of hearing, and a short Q&A with the director is the sole extra.]