The annals of horror history are littered with antagonists that boast fascinating, distinctive character traits. Freddy Krueger has his glove. Jason has his hockey mask. Romero’s zombies have their shuffle. And yet the antagonist lurking at the heart of André Øvredal’s stunning English language debut, The Autopsy Of Jane Doe is unique precisely because of her anonymity, and her cold, unforgiving silence.
Indeed, the Jane Doe of the film’s title, a beautiful, terrifying cadaver being investigated by father-and-son morgue attendant team Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austin (Emile Hirsch) speaks not a word over the course of the film’s tightly executed 90 minutes. Nor does she move. Not once. She is a cipher, an enigma for the characters to project on, and depending on how open-minded you are as a viewer can either be read as a stand-in for historical female suffering and abuse, or even the very existence of God and the afterlife.
Not that The Autopsy is some kind of Ingmar Bergman-esque exploration of morality and faith. It is first and foremost a Grand Guignol delight: a lurching, deliciously unsophisticated assemblage of things that go bump in the night, and Øvredal spends his opening act gleefully setting up the horrors and scares that go off like metal-jawed traps in the final third. There are rumbling, dark air vents for things to hide in; curved mirrors that reveal so much less than they should; and, in a setup for one of the film’s most memorably disturbing reveals, a fuzzy radio shouting weather warnings and humming disturbingly upbeat pop hits.
As one would hope, given Øvredal’s last film was the brilliant, darkly funny Trollhunter,the director has retained his twisted sense of humour, and The Autopsy never takes itself too seriously. The ending in particular – a deranged finale unfairly disparaged by some American critics for being bungled – is a sick twist akin to the moralistic finales scattered throughout American TV horror classics like Night Gallery and Tales From The Crypt; a gleefully evil sucker punch that should elicit laughs and gasps in equal measure.
There is so much to love here; so much colour, and humour, and horror, and stylishly captured sickness. And of course, there’s Jane Doe herself: inspiration for a thousand future Halloween costumes and an icon in the making. She is, after all, the film’s key: a unique, unforgettable horror lurking like a tumour at the centre of one of the most exciting American genre films to be released in years.