Review: André Øvredal's 'The Autopsy Of Jane Doe' Is Smart, Clever, And Truly Terrifying

Note: With The Autopsy of Jane Doe out now, we're re-running our review from Fantastic Fest.

The horror genre is so often dominated by stupid characters doing stupid things, so it's refreshing to watch a film like The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Here is a frightening story about two intelligent men whose talents for science and deduction break against a wall of undefinable supernatural power. Here is a fascinating mystery where the pleasures are not only derived from a series of increasingly terrifying and impossible discoveries, but from watching these two men work down a checklist of every possible rational explanation before realizing they are beyond their limits.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a film as interested in process as it is in jump scares and the result is one of the most entertaining horror movies I've seen in a year that has had no shortage of great scary movies.

Those who come to The Autopsy of Jane Doe because they're familiar with director André Øvredal's previous film, the hilarious and endlessly imaginative found footage adventure Trollhunter, may be in for a surprise. His latest film, his first in the English language, has little in common with his previous feature beyond its sure-handed direction, attention to detail, and obsession with lead characters who radiate intelligence in the face of the impossible.

Here, that character is Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox), a third-generation small town mortician who spends his days amongst the community's dead with his son and assistant, Austin (Emile Hirsch). Their dynamic is efficiently painted in the opening scenes. Tommy is a veteran when it comes to dealing with the dead and his work ethic is one part scientist and one part Sherlock Holmes. Every dead body delivered to their basement workplace is a mystery and in Austin, he has the perfect sounding board (a perfect Watson, if you will). Austin, while undeniably skilled as a medical assistant, has put off future plans to stay by his father's side as he struggles with fresh emotional wounds caused by his wife's death. Cox and Hirsch have a strong rapport and are instantly believable as a father and son. They tease each other and complain and occasionally groan about the other's decisions. They're total pros.

It's a good thing their dynamic makes for such solid cinema, because they represent two-thirds of the important characters in the film. That final third is the titular "Jane Doe" (Olwen Kelly), a dead body uncovered at a grisly crime scene with no obvious wounds. The police need a cause of death by the next morning, so that means an unexpected long night for the duo.

Considering the genre, you will guess (and guess correctly) that their long night only gets longer the more they literally dig into this body. Jane Doe's lifeless corpse is home to a number of mysteries that defy science and rational explanation, forcing Austin and Tommy into a situation beyond their training and understanding.

And it's scary as hell. Øvredal has made a movie that is a genuine crowdpleaser and when the shit hits the fan, it hits it with a perfect mixture of jump scares and atmosphere. The Autopsy of Jane Doe will please anyone looking for a spooky "haunted house" experience, but it knows when to slow down and drill into the psyche. Øvredal shoots dimly lit hallways like a pro and the autopsy room where the bulk of the film takes place slowly transforms from a safe and sanitary refuge to something far more horrible.

The secret weapon here is Brian Cox, who does what Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Vincent Price used to do so well: he walks into the joint and classes things up with sheer presence. As the mystery of Jane Doe deepens, Cox finds himself saddled with material that could seem preposterous coming out of another's actor's mouth, but he sells it. He makes you believe it. The screenplay by Ian B. Goldberg and Richard Naing also does its fair share of the heavy lifting, establishing Cox's Tommy as a wickedly intelligent and charismatic guy long before he finds himself pushed to the limit.

That's the real appeal of The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Beyond the undeniably effective scares, this is a movie about the point where the scientific process and detective work collide and how those methods of thinking become valuable weapons in a war they were never intended to wage. The bulk of the film is the autopsy itself, depicted in detail so gruesome that it will unsettle many stomachs, but for Cox and Hirsch, the inside of a dead body is another day at the office and Øvredal treats it as such. Watching this father and son take notes and collect samples and chat their way through a biological mystery is as thrilling as the scenes of pure terror that follow. And because these characters have been presented as so smart and because they're smart enough to know when to fold 'em and walk away, it's up to the rest of the movie to provide worthy roadblocks.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe is proof that Trollhunter was no fluke – André Øvredal is one of the most clever guys making genre movies today and he's refusing to let himself get boxed into a corner. This is the kind of gem that gives you the fuel to power through a couple dozen lousy horror movies in search of the next great movie./Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10