With a few exceptions, I can’t say I was overly impressed with 2016’s horror movie selections. In fact, I’d pretty much written it off as yet another lousy year until the other night when I popped on a screener copy of The Autopsy of Jane Doe. The film made its debut last September at the Toronto International Film Festival before receiving a limited theatrical release here in the States on December 21st. It was filmed in the UK and marks the first English-speaking movie by Norwegian Director, André Øvredal, who also directed and produced a film the other Dave discussed back in 2011, Trollhunter. I can only hope this won’t be his last.
The film centers on Tommy and Austin Tilden (deftly played by Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch); father/son coroners in a small town who are just about to call it a night before a rather unusual body shows up at their door. For inexplicable reasons, an attractive nude female (portrayed by Owen Catherine Kelly) was found half buried in the basement of a home where seemingly unrelated murders took place. The charred remains of the occupants are directly at odds with the pristine body of the unidentifiable woman and, making things even more baffling, was that there were no signs of forced entry but rather evidence the residents were trying to break out of the house instead. The befuddled Sheriff Sheldon (Michael McElhatton) asks the Tildens to put in a little overtime on his “Jane Doe” in the hopes her autopsy will garner some insights before his inevitable grilling from the press.
The family owned mortuary setting is unnerving in and of itself and even creepier when Austin gives his girlfriend, Emma (Ophelia Lovibond), a peek at some of the other bodies currently residing there. If nothing else, it definitely dispels the myth about small towns being dull and devoid of violence. It’s also an opportunity for the senior Tilden to discuss his ritual of tying a bell on all the bodies; heralding back to an old practice designed to prevent premature burials as well as an effective plot device here.
It isn’t until they start cutting into their “Jane Doe” that the supernatural elements of the film begin to unfold and the viewer finds themselves locked in a rollercoaster ride they can’t get off until its denouement.
While the final explanation for these occurrences seems a bit contrived, it’s an original concept nonetheless. Truly good supernatural horror films outside of anything James Wan touches aren’t easy to come by these days but Øvredal proves himself more than capable. Despite lots of gruesome sights, the horror is fairly subtle as the fear factor slowly reaches its boiling point. I must confess it’s been a long time since a movie actually got my adrenaline pumping but this one succeeded during several scenes.
The acting is superb and I legitimately cared about the Tildens and their enviable father/son relationship. Øvredal stated in an interview that the best acting was actually from the “corpse,” Kelly, who not only put the cast at ease with her being nude throughout the film but used her Yoga skills to minimize breathing.
The role of Tommy Tilden was originally supposed to be played by Martin Sheen but I honestly can’t imagine anyone else being as effective as Cox despite usually seeing him portray a villain. This was Øvredal’s first foray into horror and he is said to have been inspired after seeing a screening of The Conjuring.
Again I say…let it not be his last!