After shocking us with the unmissable, one-of-a-kind Troll Hunter, Norwegian director André Øvredal has become a talent you want to keep a close eye on. His new feature The Autopsy of Jane Doe is debuting at the London Film Festival as the Cult gala, and rewards that close attention.
While the synopsis warns that this is a “horror that will leave you screaming in the aisles,” I didn't think it would literally make me consider grabbing my jacket and noping the heck out of the screening room. If the horror genre hasn't completely turned into a soulless (albeit extremely successful) sausage factory, releasing a slew of embarrassing to mediocre features every year, it is thanks to movies like The Autopsy of Jane Doe. It may not be the new The Exorcist, but it still features right at the top of the list of the best horrors of the decade, if not of the best films of the year.
The story introduces us to the Tilden Mortuary Clinic, run by Tony Tilden (Brian Cox, excellent in his role) and his son Austin (Emile Hirsch). They are decent people making a living in a clinic that has belonged to their family for generations. Many corpses have come by, been opened and examined, and then cremated or given back to their families. Needless to say, Tony and Austin mainly work for the county police department, running autopsies on the victims of crimes. One day, after the gruesome murder of a whole family in their home, the cops find a mysterious body half-buried in the building's basement. She's our Jane Doe, and it will be up to the Tildens to determine the cause of death.
If you're not a fan of jump scares, be advised Øvredal does resort to them a few times; maybe it's a few times too many, but looking at the bigger picture, they are definitely not what will give you nightmares. The same goes for the detailed corpse examination: it's not impressive because of its gory nature, but because of the awkward, desecrating nature of the act itself.
The slow build-up of tension, at first just lingering in the air, then increasingly palpable and menacing, will keep you holding your breath much more than the hundreds of “real” monsters you might have seen in other films. The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a horror that really understands the concept of hiding the monster, making the threat and the unknown scarier; every time one of the doctors gets their face or hands too close to Jane, you'll find yourself expecting the worst, without even knowing what exactly it could be. Every time the camera gazes on Jane's empty eyes, you'll find yourself waiting for a terrifying blink. This effect is achieved purely thanks to masterful camera work, and the use of lighting, editing, and sound; you will not once be given a clear idea of what's going to happen, of what you should be afraid of – not until the situation goes completely out of control.
One way or another, the mystery of Jane Doe has to be solved; after such a great premise, it can be hard to deliver a convincing resolution and reveal the monster without resorting to too many genre tropes. Øvredal manages to do so quite convincingly, but in hindsight it's obvious that the third act is just not as flawless as the rest of the film. Still, once the dark of the screening room swallows you, it will be difficult to keep yourself from whispering “Oh no…” in fear.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe screens as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2016
Words by Davide Prevarin