Horror in the last decade has experienced a massive sea change in critics’ minds, probably partly sparked by the increased amount of so-called “art-house horror,” with films such as It Follows and Get Out. These films tend to evoke the “golden period” of the genre, specifically the ’70s and ’80s, through their tone, style and often their score. Younger critics, and especially online critics, grew up with those films, so they are probably more responsive to the genre than many of their older counterparts.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe has almost all of these factors, except for the synth-led score that is becoming a cliché in “art-house horror” films. It’s set in small town Virginia, and it’s about Tommy and Austin, a father and son team of coroners. The son is planning to go out with his girlfriend, but soon the local sheriff brings in a “Jane Doe,” and he needs to do an autopsy that night instead. Soon he and his father are unravelling the mystery of “Jane Doe” and what happened to her, and supernatural forces are at work in the crematorium.
The film is elevated by two stand-out performances by Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch. They have a natural chemistry and an extremely believable father-son dynamic. Cox’s performance as Tommy has some great little character touches, such as the fact that he stills puts a bell on a corpse’s toe in case it might still be alive (an old morgue tradition.) Cox actually replaced Martin Sheen in the role—Sheen would’ve been good, but would have given a different reading of the character, I believe.
Olwen Catherine Kelly, who is a relative newcomer to film, deserves a mention for playing the corpse of Jane Doe. Despite being motionless and not speaking, her presence is always felt, which is down to her performance as much as the sense of dread and claustrophobia in the film. Ophelia Lovibond is also good as Austin’s girlfriend, who audiences may recognize from Guardians of the Galaxy.
Like many horror films, the narrative falls apart in the final act (as even the great ones often do), but the ride is so strong for the majority of the film that it can be forgiven. It’s one of the smartest horror films to come out in this current wave, and has the right amount of twists and turns and gore to satisfy horror fans. It’s refreshing that it’s a horror film that doesn’t try to work comedy into the film and goes for pitch-black dread, even if the ending should’ve been more ambiguous.
The disc is fairly barebones, but it includes a short 5-minute Q&A with director André Øvredal, who makes his English-language debut here. I’m sure we will see even greater things from him in the future.