9 out of 10
Emile Hirsch as Austin Tilden
Directed by André Øvredal
The Autopsy of Jane Doe Review:
This is a great time for horror cinema. True, most of the best horror doesn’t make its way to the multiplex except for potential franchise material, but occasionally a film like The Witch or It Follows will, horror that is original in premise and execution, inspired by the films that came before but not beholden to them. True horror fans take risks – out of all the cinema fans out there, horror fans are the least judgmental (sometimes to their detriment) but also the most adventurous. And when something original comes out, they embrace it with open arms. Great horror films have a long shelf life, and continue to inspire and frighten years or decades after release.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe may very well be one of those movies. Only time will tell, of course, but André Øvredal (Trollhunter) has crafted a puzzle box that stimulates even as it frightens, full of terrifying imagery and two performances that take the premise absolutely seriously. Øvredal raises the tension with effortless skill, and the scares aren’t of the cat-on-the-bed variety. When bad things truly happen, the characters act realistically and Øvredal does not spare a tool in his considerable arsenal to terrify and disturb. I consider myself a fairly jaded horror fan, and in the second half of this movie, I was gripping my armrests. That may sound cliché, but it’s a rare instance when a horror film truly scare me. The Autopsy of Jane Doe frightened me in ways that I haven’t been in some time. Not only does Øvredal give great mood and tone, but he delivers on the thrills. The Autopsy of Jane Doe isn’t some clinical exploration into darkness – this is one hell of a scary movie.
Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch have a real chemistry together as father and son coroners who are presented with a dead body with no visible justification of how she died. Jane Doe’s (Olwen Kelly) body was found at a scene of a multiple homicide, with no explanation of how she got there. The Tildens have been coroners for generations, and Austin (Hirsch) has dutifully followed in his father Tommy’s (Cox) footsteps. But these aren’t stereotypical morbid morticians – Austin and Tommy are intelligent, curious, and steeped in science. There is a rational reason for everything, and while that reason may not be readily apparent, the Tildens will determinedly chase it down. Tommy’s suffered the loss of his wife recently, and Austin loves his father very much, putting aside his personal life to attend to him.
But the closer they examine Jane Doe’s body, the stranger things become, and occurrences and visions start to pile up with no cogent reasoning. These men of science are being challenged by something seemingly supernatural, something that is trying to stop them from proceeding. Once the terror truly begins, there is no escape, and the Tildens desperately try to solve the mystery without losing their minds or their lives.
I loved how restrained Øvredal is in the early scenes of the film – The Autopsy of Jane Doe plays at first almost like a procedural as the Tildens try to understand how Jane Doe died. It helps the understanding of the material that Hirsch and Cox have such a terrific rapport with each other – they even look like father and son. There is a genuine feeling of sentiment and emotion between the two that invests the audience and makes us care when the bad things start happening, and Brian Cox gives one of those horror performances of the ages that we laud Peter Cushing and Vincent Price for. Emile Hirsch gives as good as Brian Cox does, and the film is often riveting just listening to the two men talk to each other.
This movie isn’t just an exercise in acting and the subtle nuances of horror. When this movie gets scary, when Andre Øvredal brings in the terror, The Autopsy of Jane Doe thrills like few recent horror films have. I am fully supportive of horror films that give us characters to root for, people we don’t want to see put into the meat grinder, and because Øvredal takes his time in the beginning to establish these relationships, the payoff is so much more effective. Although confined to one location, the film never feels small, and the themes and ideas that the movie examines give everything verisimilitude. As science gradually gives way to the occult, we are able to transition between them with ease, and unlike so many horror films where the characters make bad choices just to keep the film moving in the direction the filmmaker wants to go, the choices that the Tildens make feel honest and not simply to orchestrate the next scare. I imagine that audiences will come to the same conclusions as these characters do – my favorite moment in The Autopsy of Jane Doe is when the Tildens decide not to question what is happening and commit to it. It’s a very smart horror film in that regard – you can try to outthink the story, but Øvredal and the screenplay by Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing are way ahead of you.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe implicitly trusts its audience to follow along with the twists and turns of its story, and never treats them like idiots. But it’s also a hell of a spooky blast of a ride, with winning performances and a building of tension that just does not stop. I fully expect this movie to find its way into the hearts of horror fans everywhere – this is one we’ll be talking about for years to come. With Trollhunter, André Øvredal made a very entertaining horror film with a limited budget, but The Autopsy of Jane Doe puts him in a much wider world as a filmmaker, and I desperately hope that Øvredal keeps making horror movies. Like James Wan, he’s exceedingly good at it. With The Autopsy of Jane Doe, André Øvredal has placed himself in this new generation’s group of great horror filmmakers. My generation has had filmmakers like David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, Sam Raimi, Wes Craven – let us now welcome the new architects of our nightmares. It’s their time now. Scream, if you like. It won’t do you any good.