This article was first published to The Edge on 31st January 2017
I’m by no means the person to ask about the history of horror in film, but you don’t have to be an expert to notice the subtext trend in the genre’s most recent successes. The Babadook is about depression and grief. The Witch is about fear of femininity and powers that a masculine worldview doesn’t understand. The Invitation, also about depression and grief. Last summer’s surprise hit Lights Out is concerned with the same, and the pain that families both hide and pass onto each generation. The Autopsy Of Jane Doe touches on all of these and more. It’s far from the best of the bunch, but it’s a punchy addition to the canon, bridging the gap between eerie chamber pieces like The Invitation, the atmospheric restraint of The Witch, and inevitably the more schlocky, booming crowd-pleaser tradition of Lights Out. It makes for a compelling, somewhat jarring stylistic and thematic cocktail.
When a near pristine corpse is found, half buried and naked at the scene of a violent triple murder, she is brought to the family mortuary of Tommy and Austin Tilden (Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch). Dubbed ‘Jane Doe’ (Olwen Catherine Kelly), the father and son duo are tasked with uncovering how she died. But the further they go in their work, the stranger it becomes.
Director André Øvredal (of 2011’s Troll Hunter) brings a great deal of expertise and functional filmmaking to the picture, harmonious to his protagonists’ professionalism. Just as Tommy and Austin narrate their findings to the camera whilst conducting their autopsy, Øvredal uses the first act to efficiently, if clunkily, establish their characters. Through an opening autopsy, and the introduction of the titular subject, we discover how Tommy is the consummate professional, warm beneath his more repressed mannerisms. Austin is as caring, but more concerned with motive than the rational cause-and-effect of death; they share an untense and considerate relationship, but both are hiding something. The senior Tilden is still grieving and blaming himself for the death of his wife, whilst the younger is keeping secrets with his long-term girlfriend Emma (Ophelia Lovibond, in a promising but disappointingly small role).
None of the male characters here are especially masculine: Cox’s performance shines as he modulates the professionalism and fatherly warmth with a pervasive sadness that seems constantly at odds with his battle for rationality; Hirsch may play the lead role, but he’s the support in the mortuary, less sinister or tic-laden than he’s played in the past; even Michael McElhatton’s Sheriff seems cautious and aware of how out of his depth he is. But they’re all varying degrees of rational in the masculine sense, and watching that degrade as they’re presented with an unexplainable woman is one of the story’s key arcs.
Where the film begins to decline is, as with many, after the midpoint. Around the midpoint, the oppressive atmosphere – meticulously built upon increasing uncertainties – practically explodes off the screen. The chamber based dread shifts to explicit violence and ghost tactics, as the sound mix becomes dominated by loud noises. Not that this is bad; this detonation is the single most terrifying scene of the film, in no small part because of the impeccable editing and greatly discomforting cacophony. But this shift may turn off the more intellectual genre-fans, and they’re not the only genre tropes that undermine it – more than one sub-plot is clumsily closed, whilst the ending doesn’t satisfy. Still, The Autopsy Of Jane Doe is a great showcase for André Øvredal’s talent at opposite stylistic ends of the horror genre, and a point of confluence for the genre’s most recent thematic focal points. It’s a great Friday night scare-fest, a compelling mystery, and an almost brilliant study of hidden pain.
The Autopsy Of Jane Doe, directed by André Øvredal, is pending UK distribution. Certificate TBC.