Horror, 86 Minutes, 2016
Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox [IMDB]) is thrilled that his son, Austin (Emile Hirsch [IMDB]) is following in his footsteps. He’s been the county coroner for many years and has earned his reputation as a perfectionist. When the local sheriff finds a perfectly preserved corpse with no outward signs of trauma lying serenely among the tattered victims of a multiple… homocide? Suicide? Accident? – he goes to Tommy for answers.
Tension builds steadily as the father and son team begin to examine the pristine body of the young girl. The mystery deepens as they find inexplicable internal evidence of archaic tortures inflicted upon her with no outward signs of harm. As the autopsy continues, “inexplicable” turns to “inescapable” as the father and son team are subjected to supernatural torments of their own. What is the secret of Jane Doe?
The movie is extremely well presented. The pacing is solid and the environment is expertly used to its best potential. Discomfort arises initially, as it should, simply from seeing exactly how a modern autopsy is performed. Only later, once the audience has been primed, are more traditional horror concepts layered over this foundation.
Cox is always worth watching and anchors the piece firmly. He quickly gains and holds the support of the audience. Hirsch’s performance is also solid and the two easily adopt a believable father and son chemistry. The movie happily avoids the trap of making this relationship more complex than it needs to be.
Director André Øvredal [IMDB], known for his 2010 found-footage masterpiece, “Troll Hunter” [My Review], demonstrates a deft, able hand. As a straight scare-fest there’s very little to complain about.
Unfortunately, the movie fails to rise above its technical competence. It’s primary issue, as is so often the case, is a failure to fully develop a promising premise. Horror movies require rules and these rules must be followed for them to be successful. Zombies die when they lose their heads. Vampires die when you stake their hearts. A movie can bend or break the rules, but it must be consistent.
The rules provide a chance for the heroes to win. If they can stay alive to dawn, they’ll live. If they can kill the queen, the invasion will end. If they can stay awake, they won’t become pod people. As this story evolves, it fails to establish rules. Only at the very end, as the mystery is seemingly untangled, are any rules established, yet even these are ultimately ignored. This dampens the impact of the story. If anything can happen, what does happen isn’t as powerful.
This means you’ll likely leave the movie unsatisfied. Still, it does so much, so well. It’s a great premise supported by impressive technical skill, solid performances and mindful directing. Even failing to reach its potential, it’s still better than most of the alternatives and a great option for a scary date night.