André Øvredal/ USA/ 2016/ 86 mins
Available on Blu-Ray from Mon Jun 26 2017
Director André Øvredal has a cult reputation to live up to, following the B-movie success of 2010’s Scandi-doc-horror Troll Hunter. Not straying too far from the genre, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a paranormal thriller, focusing on Tommy and Austin Tilden: a father and son working in their family-run morgue and crematorium. Their latest emergency case – a female corpse found half-buried in the basement of a house – provides the pair with their most difficult autopsy yet, with inexplicable diagnostics they can’t possibly decipher. And the further they examine, the freakier things become.
Brian Cox immediately brings a sobriety and credibility to the role of Tommy (originally assigned to Martin Sheen until Netflix hit Grace and Frankie got in the way) and Emile Hirsch balances out his stern father-figure with an affability that easily engages the audience. The father-son relationship is only modestly developed, though, before the hardcore horror kicks in.
Autopsy seems to be aiming for psychological threat, attempting to utilise its confined environment and CSI cause-of-death mystery to create something unique and intriguing. And it starts out that way. The protagonists interest us and a girlfriend subplot even hints at further layers of characterisation to be explored later. But after the initial autopsy setup and swift series of anatomical clues, the film ends up reverting to the clichés of the genre, rather than inventing anything new: jump-scares; POV shots peering through cracks in doors, jolly-yet-creepy 1930’s radio music, flickering lights, dead pets, loss of mobile signals, stormy weather, ensuing powercuts and dead phone lines. They provide decent scares but it feels like a wasted chance for the autopsy-room hook and star-powered cast. The finale is also slightly confusing, with no discernible logic – even for supernatural horror – and a “reveal” that the audience had surely figured out themselves by the end of the first act.
The pace is steady though and enough is established in the opening scenes to hold our interest (just) until the end to find out the father-son duo’s fate. Øvredal’s reputation won’t be tarnished by Autopsy, but it might take a new genre to break into the mainstream.