Midnight Madness is the Toronto International Film Festival’s answer to that old adage that only the crazy people come to downtown Toronto at night. It’s the place that you go to when you’re looking for something more than the character dramas that have made the Toronto International Film Festival one of the world’s largest festivals of it’s kind. Midnight Madness is the place you go to for violence, gore, zombies, creatures, kung fu, and an all around great time with an audience that is compose of mostly the fans of the genre. The 2016 TIFF Midnight Madness continues to grow and push the boundaries of horror and violence with world wide zombie viruses, French lesbian cannibals, the Blair Witch, and Nicholas Cage. And if you think all Midnight Madness this year needs with a line up like that is a morgue, they have you covered.
André Øvredal, the director of the cult 2010 Norwegian film, Troll Hunter, brings his new film to Midnight Madness, The Autopsy of Jane Doe. A cerebral horror story about the events in a small family-run morgue when the mysterious body of a naked woman,found half uncovered in the basement of a brutal massacre, is brought in. Øvredal has managed to reach a cult-level with a career that’s spanned only two feature films leading into Autopsy. And it’s easy to see why, even going back as to Troll Hunter, with the way he pushes his actors to go off-book to create a performance that feels as real as Jane Doe’s body looked on that table. And it’s through these performances and his great sense of tempo that he allows you to get behind these characters and build the slow-burn tension of the film. Throughout the first half of the film, I wasn’t expecting to be pulled in through the nostalgic feeling that Øvredal uses to build the tension as soon as Jane Doe arrives in the Tilden family morgue. And this classic horror tension builds to a very satisfying conclusion as we watch Brian Cox’s Tommy Tilden and his son, Austen, played by Emile Hirsch.
Brian Cox, the original Hannibal Lector, brings that similar human detachment to the role of the Tilden family matriarch. It creates a realism for the character. I believed this was someone who has been raised in generations of medical technicians. In turn, it brought a sense of real distance between Tommy and Austen that fuelled the first act of the film. And I have to give more credit to Øvredal who allowed this distance between Tommy and Austen the time it took for us to get behind these characters and using what Jane Doe was doing to push this distance between these two. What I’ve always loved abut Emilie Hirsch is the honesty that comes through his performance. You get that in Into the Wild especially. Austen is a certified medical technician, devoted boyfriend and son. And Hirsch plays the role with an earnest energy – often becoming the voice of the audience. He’s the one that drives the story forward but does it as a way that’s always looking out for his father.
Ophelia Lovibond plays Emma, Austen’s girlfriend. What little time she has on screen shows the talent she has. She plays Emma as frustrated and in love. Øvredal pushed her performance into a situation that allows you understand that frustration she feels. And it’s easy to feel for her. Michael McElhatton, best known as Roose Bolton on Game of Thrones rounds out the cast as Sheriff Shelton and brings a troubled feeling to his role. You can never be quite sure if it’s some feeling about Jane herself, or the fact he finds her underneath the basement floor of a massacre that he doesn’t have any answers for it. McElhatton lets you decide as he brings a terrific brooding presence to the film that anchors the story.
What I love most about what Øvredal’s done with this film is despite the naturally messed up situations that happen when Jane Doe gets there is that this is still a story about a son trying to reconnect with his father. This theme is strong throughout the film in both Hirsch and Cox’s performances and it plays out in a pretty cool and very strong way. The highlight of this film is hands down, Jane Doe. It truly shows just how talented Øvredal is when he somehow is able to create a strong character out of a dead body.
And I have to give so much credit to both Olwen Catherine Kelly, the woman playing Jane Doe, as much as I do the artists behind making her corpse. Øvredal’s character work with Jane Doe is only as good as she is. And I was hard pressed to figure out when it was the corpse or the actor – and I looked. The work on all the corpses featured in this film is gripping in the sense you’ll think they borrowed actual corpses. And I deeply appreciated the fact that Øvredal never over uses his gore shots when he is using a body. The scenes with Jane Doe are a testament to great film making as they genuinely pull you in as much as they do show character – and she doesn’t move. Ultimately, The Autopsy of Jane Doe balances tone and style successfully well. That being said, there is a few points where Øvredal goes for a jump scare. In doing that, he cuts the tension he built for a scare he doesn’t need because I’m with these characters. But, credit to him, the film recovers extraordinary quickly from those jump scares into a film that’s well worth 4.5 out of 5 stars as much as it is your time.
It’s a film that harkens back to feeling of a time when horror movies where purely performance driven and the effects only pushed that performance. While we’re not watching Jack Torrance’s decent into madness. But it’s every bit as entertaining.
4.5 Stars out of 5