Director André Øvredal follows the cult success of his debut feature – 2010’s found-footage folk horror ‘Trollhunter’ – with this curious, ingenious affair. The set-up is intriguing; when the police investigate what appears to be a home invasion turned homicide, they find amongst the victims and unidentifiable, curiously undamaged body, the eponymous Jane Doe. She is then delivered to father-and-son autopsy team Tom Tilden (Brian Cox) and his son Austin (Emile Hirsch), who are given until the next morning to determine the cause of death – and from there, things get progressively weirder.
So far, so promising, but the horror genre is notorious for turning an interesting premise into an immense disappointment. Mercifully, this is one of the few gems that make wading through endless weak sequels worthwhile. This is a film that knows exactly how to scare you – knows what to show you to make you squirm and what is worse when left to the imagination, what should be left lurking in the dark.
The first act relies largely on gore to create a building, creeping sense of unease – but fear not; this is not the shock-horror gratuity of Eli Roth films or the Saw franchise; this is cold, medical, squelching and unflinching. No grisly detail of the autopsy is spared; the cracking of fractured bones, the moist, sickly sounds of internal organs, the blood and brains and gooey, messy horror of the human body. Gore is often used as a way to get cheap jump scares; what is refreshing here is that the camera never looks away, even when you begin to wish it would. Even as a seasoned horror fan with a penchant for – and something of an immunity to – the gory, I found my stomach beginning to turn. (Also, there is a moment here which any animal lovers will find deeply unpleasant.)
The performances are strong across the board, but the real stand-out star, odd as it may seem, is Jane Doe herself. Without speaking, moving, or indeed visibly breathing, newcomer Olwen Kelly manages to convey an extraordinary amount of insidious, creeping malice through her utter stillness.
The film is not entirely without it’s bum notes – some of the early exposition is a little clunky, and there are a few plot points that prioritise emotional manipulation over internal logic. But these, ultimately, are minor gripes. ‘The Autopsy of Jane Doe’ is a rare thing – a horror film that sustains real fear right up until its’ closing moments. Much like last year’s ‘The Witch’, and ‘It Follows’ the year previously, this film has real potential to become a sleeper hit, and is likely to be many people’s favourite horror film of 2017. With an early ouvre this strong I can’t wait to see where Øvredal goes next – but for now, we have what could be a cult classic in the making.