Trollhunter’s André Øvredal turns old-school horror inside out in this ultra eerie, bare-bones chiller packed out with enough twists to put even M. Night Shyamalan to shame.
You wouldn’t think that there’s an awful lot of directions you can really take things in when your main antagonist is a dead body that lies entirely motionless for your movie’s full 86 minute run time. This isn’t even a Saw-style scenario either, nobody’s trying to trick you; the Jane Doe of the title is exactly that, a corpse, and never anything more. And yet cult fan-favourite André Øvredal’s first big American bow is without doubt, one of the most thrilling horror releases of the year.
It’s not the first-time something as basic as a largely one-room drama has really taken off; Rodrigo Cortes’s Ryan Reynolds-starrer Buried managed to keeping things fascinating for even longer, despite being set entirely in an underground coffin barely the size of its lead. Where The Autopsy of Jane Doe differs wildly from the competition though is its tonal shifts; what begins as a straight-forward mystery soon morphs into something a lot more spiritual and ultimately, by the final bloody act, something a lot more sinister too.
The early conundrum in question: a routine autopsy on a nameless corpse by a father-son coroner team (Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch, who were seemingly born to bounce off of each other), might well be the film’s strongest section narratively, but there’s still certainly no complaints as Øvredal begins to fade into a much more horror-driven direction later on. And whilst it does very quickly become a noticeably more straight forward mishmash of poltergeists and various oddities that quite literally go bump in the night, the Norwegian director certainly proves he has a handle on suspense.
Takes become a lot more drawn out, certain apparitions go visually unanswered, and the basic haunted house mechanics that helped power the likes of Insidious and Sinister more recently, get a much-needed overhaul. Øvredal keeps us decidedly in the dark throughout, happily managing to shake up the familiar beats and scares just enough to keep things consistently fresh and thrilling, whilst Hirsch and Cox help to fill in the blanks brilliantly.
Both incredible leading men in their own right, it seems a little strange to see the pair phoning in what at first seems like a fairly cut-and-dry job. But as Øvredal starts to venture deeper into the film’s less explainable, and noticeably more horrific elements – where Hirsch and Cox are no doubt expected to waver more in the face of what many would see as a bit of ghostly silliness – they actually dig in even more themselves too. Not only are they are a winning father-son duo in the chemistry department, but they each do a great job of legitimising the craziness of what’s going on around them too; which, in a film like this, is absolutely essential.
Even in its quieter moments, or when it briefly touches on a note that seems a little too familiar for comfort, The Autopsy of Jane Doe remains a totally enthralling exercise in how to keep mystery and suspense alive in what would otherwise be a very typical genre release. Øvredal proves he has a future beyond trolls, and his clever craftsmanship here should earn him a whole lot more praise moving forward.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe hits UK cinemas 31st March.