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THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE Delivers Sick And Unique Thrills (Review)

THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE Delivers Sick And Unique Thrills (Review)

In 2011, Norwegian director André Øvredal thrilled audiences around the world with his witty and wild found-footage creature feature Trollhunter. Now this monster-loving filmmaker has returned with his English-language debut, the intimate and intense Autopsy of Jane Doe.

Emile Hirsch and Brian Cox co-star as Tommy and Austin Tilden, a father and son team of coroners’ responsible for uncovering the cause of death of any unusual cases in the rural town of Grantham, Virginia. The pair work happily together, blasting rock radio and pondering the methods of murder while elbow deep in in grisly cadavers, their pleasant mood a stark contrast to their grim family business. But trouble brews for the Tildens. Tommy and his girlfriend (Ophelia Lovibond) are plotting a life away from the mortuary, but this dedicated Daddy’s Boy worries over who will look after his widowed father if he’s not around. However, these personal dramas fall to the side when a bizarre body arrives.

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Found on the site of a gruesome triple murder, this unclaimed female corpse is seemingly pristine, no cuts, no bruises, no apparent cause of death. A spooked sheriff (Michael McElhatton) drops her off, demanding a full report by morning. And so father and son Tilden get to work, cracking open her chest and diving in. But the deeper they get into the corpse and their investigation, the stranger the things that happen in their remote little morgue. Lights flicker. Strange noise echo down dark halls. The dead rise. The laws of nature bend at the will of this unusual dead girl, unfurling a story sick, satisfying and sensational.

The screenplay by Ian B. Goldberg and Richard Naing shrewdly centers in the Tilden morgue, trapping our heroes below ground and in a familiar place made strange. Its intimacy turns claustrophobic, the film’s low-budget working in its favor using lighting and suggestive terror gags to tease audiences into a state of frightened frenzy. Adding gravitas is Øvredal’s central cast of heavy-hitters. Hirsch and Cox reject the campiness common in haunted house flicks, favoring a more grounded and thereby impactful performance style. They sell the rich bond between father and son, and by extension make the horror of their situation all the more disturbing. Yet the undersung hero of this thriller is Jane Doe herself.

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Newcomer Olwen Catherine Kelly bares much of her body in service to The Autopsy of Jane Doe. She is never given dialogue or even motion to create the menace and motivations of her monster. Yet Øvredal’s direction shoots her in such a way that she feels fleshed out. Her frozen expression reads in turn as smirking, heartless and heartbroken, juxtaposed by a biting sound design, and insightful editing from Peter Gvozdas and Patrick Larsgaard. Remarkably, cinematographer Roman Osin manages to shoot a naked woman in a way that avoids horror’s tendency toward sexual objectification and body horror. Taking a cue from the Tildens, his shots regard Doe’s body not as object of lust or disgust but of mystery. It’s a delicate balance that makes this a uniquely smart and thrilling ride.

Contained and terrifying, The Autopsy of Jane Doe reminds me of the best of Tales From The Crypt. Its story is cleverly concise, save for the rushing of its enigmatic antagonist’s complicated backstory. The father and son team are efficient archetypes, with a twist of the morbid delivered in their mortuary work. And through this, we get the simple staging necessary to build a tale of tension, terror and trauma. While lesser horror auteurs slather their sets in blood and attempt to awe with outrageous gore, Øvredal offers a more sophisticated and scarier story that pulls audiences to the edge of their seats, then pitches them back in genuine fright to deliver one of the best horror films of the year.

4 out of 5 burritos.

4 burritos


The Autopsy of Jane Doe hits theaters Wednesday, December 21, 2016.

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