THE BASEMENT TAPES
With THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE, Norwegian André Øvredal directs a no-nonsense throwback to classic B-horror thrills
Norwegian director André Øvredal seemed destined to join the club of the one-offs that direct one stellar film before disappearing never to be heard of again — in his case, the 2010 cult hit Troll Hunter, a deceptively low-key monster movie mixed in with a deadpan satire of modern day bureaucracies and a character study that ranks next to Josh Whedon and Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods as one of the smartest genre entries of the nascent 21st century.
As follow-ups go, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is kind of a step back — at first sight a locked room mystery in an American Gothic setting that slowly reveals its supernatural elements, in the 1970s throwback tradition of The Conjuring — but it’s also a proof of life from its director, who brings to bear his commercial smarts to prove Troll Hunter wasn’t a fluke.
Everything takes place over the course of one night in a quiet rural mortuary in Virginia, as coroner Brian Cox and his son and assistant Emile Hirsch receive a request for an urgent autopsy: an unknown young woman (portrayed by a disquietingly peaceful Olwen Kelly), found half-buried underneath a house where everyone has been found dead. As father and son start processing the corpse of this “Jane Doe”, trying to understand when and how she died, things stop making sense: the body itself seems blemish-free, whatever decomposition exists is purely on the inside, and the autopsy basement becomes a pressure boiler as more and more inexplicable events, from fluctuating radios to vials that drip more blood they could possibly contain, start taking over a place of pure science. As Cox’s character says, an autopsy is not about considering hypothesis, but about observing facts — even though the facts, on their face, are impossible.
There’s genuine mood and disquiet throughout the film’s compact running time, and a slow-and-steady paying of the narrative that refuses to speed things up or fast-forward its ominous crescendo just for shock effect. Øvredal only has three actors and one set, and he doesn’t really need anything else — not even the gruesomely realistic make-up effects — to get you hooked up; Kelly’s mere physical presence and stunning visage enough to send shivers up the viewer’s spine. To be sure, The Autopsy of Jane Doe isn’t a classic — just a very well made and smart throwback to an earlier and simpler era of horror movie thrills. And that’s perfectly fine when it’s this well done.