Unheralded and unhyped, “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” sneaks into theaters like a chilly treat among the Christmas comedies and Force-fed mythologizing.
The first solo English-language feature from Norwegian director André Ovredal — an infinitely more disciplined follow-up to his 2011 film, “Trollhunter” — this shivery tour through a young woman’s innards turns putrefaction into a puzzle.
Trying to solve it are Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch, playing a father-son team of coroners ensconced in a gloomy subterranean morgue in small-town Virginia. Asked to perform a late-night autopsy on a young woman (Olwen Kelly, astonishingly immobile yet subtly menacing) retrieved from a multiple-murder scene, the men discover that her pristine exterior conceals interior devastation.
Even more unsettling, as the cadaver coughs up its clues — a severed tongue; blackened lungs — the mortuary itself begins to stir with shuffling signs of life.
Gruesome without being gory, “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” achieves real scares with a minimum of special effects. The colors are dark and dense (the director of photography, Roman Osin, also gave Joe Wright’s “Pride & Prejudice” its authentically mucky look), and the acting is modestly downbeat. Music is muted — the grisly snap of bones and squelch of peeling flesh predominate — while the camera maintains a cool, observational stillness.
This newfound restraint by Ovredal conjures an enormously creepy atmosphere that finally proves stronger than Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing’s screenplay. Their disappointingly soft ending makes “Jane Doe” a gaspingly good horror movie that could have been a great one.
(At Screenland Crossroads.)
‘The Autopsy of Jane Doe’
Rated R. Time: 1:27.