“There used to be a time it was hard to tell a comatose person from a dead one, so coroners tied bells to everybody in the morgue.”
I think we’re all messed up about death. I mean, don’t get me wrong, most every culture is. Just look at the Victorian era for crying out loud. You would think that the growing body of knowledge about how we die and what happens to a body in the process would demystify it. Reduce our need to to mythologize and ritualize the process. I guess because the final mystery still remains – what DOES happen to our consciousness we die? – all science did was make things worse. Yes, hundreds of stories and TV shows have shown us the tedious physical details of both morgue and autopsy, of bone saw and Y incision, but what, if anything, is going on inside the mind inside that body? We still don’t know. No one has come back to tell us what it feels like when they take your heart out of your chest or your brain out of your skull.
Well. Nobody I know anyway.
I read a short story when I was younger about a man who “wakes” up on the slab in the morgue. I wish I could remember which it was – I know Stephen King wrote a story called “Autopsy Room Four” about a man who is paralyzed and presumed dead, and that he was inspired by “Breakdown,” a story by Louis Pollock. There’s even a giallo called Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971) which features a protagonist uncertain if he’s really dead or merely paralyzed. These are all variations on the classic “premature burial,” though – and in the story I remember it turned out the protagonist as really dead. He is just also completely conscious.
That story scared the shit out of me.
Anyway, my rambling boils down to this: I, too, am messed up about death, and I find myself drawn to movies and stories that deal with the immediate aftermath of a person dying. The autopsy. The morgue. The grave. I think of it as research. I mean, we’re all going to end up there eventually.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe just showed back up on Shudder. It’s available as part of AMC+ (which includes Shudder) and DirectTV for subs. It can be rented on Apple TV (and only Apple TV, strangely) and purchased at a number of online vendors.
A Blu-ray of the movie was released in 2017 by Shout Factory and reviews of the picture quality are good. Sadly, there’s very little in the way of extras on the disc, but it can usually be found at a reasonable price.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe starts out with a murder. Well, the aftermath of a murder, anyway. In a small town Sheriff Burke (Michael McElhatton) is at the scene of a triple homicide when he’s called to the basement. Buried in the floor is the body of a young woman, perfectly preserved.
The body is brought to the local mortuary which also functions as a coroner’s morgue. There, Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) and his son Austen (Emile Hirsch) – who bails on a date with his girlfriend to help his father – will conduct an autopsy to try and figure out the cause of death. With no identification the woman is entered into the records as a “Jane Doe.”
When I first saw Autopsy I didn’t realize that the director was André Øvredal, who had previously directed the film Trollhunter. I really enjoyed that film, a ‘found footage’ mockumentary/horror/comedy, but would not have suspected – based on that film – that he was capable of such a subtle, traditional spook-fest. In many ways The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a classic horror film, with a slow-burn set-up and an almost haunted house feel, and Øvredal handles it all with aplomb. I’ve yet to see Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark – which he also directed – but I’m now looking forward to it.
It wouldn’t be a horror story if things went well – if they conducted the autopsy, found the cause of death and contributed to finding the killer. That’s an episode of CSI or any other forensic related procedural. No, things are off about the corpse from the first moments of examination – her lividity and the lack of rigor mortis makes it appear that she’s very recently deceased, for instance, but the clouding of her eyes suggests she’s been dead for days. Despite no external signs of injury here wrists and ankles are shattered. Her tongue has been brutally hacked out and one of her teeth is missing.
Once the autopsy starts in earnest the weirdness begins to accumulate. Blood seeps from the Y incision, her lungs are blackened as if from intense burning and many of her internal organs show extensive scarring. This is a woman who has undergone horrific torture without a single external sign of trauma. Through it all, Jane Doe’s face remains impassive. A shout-out to actress Olwen Kelly as Jane Doe. It’s not easy to be the motionless “corpse” in a movie, regardless of how much screen time you get. Having a real person be the body grounds all the gore effects in a way that a dummy would not have and she, without changing expression at all, manages to convey a sense of menace as the film goes on. (According to Øvredal, Kelly’s practice of yoga was also an asset during the long shoot.)
Brian Cox and Emile Hirsh do excellent work as a father and son. The death of Tommy’s wife – Austen’s mother – is a sore spot barely acknowledged. Tommy is obviously grooming Austen to take over the family business, but his son is considering leaving not just the job, but the town as well. These are background details only sketched out, so it’s up to the actors to make us believe in their relationship. Cox is excellent in everything, but Hirsch holds up his end quite well, making us care and identify with them both and invested in what happens to them. That’s a necessary buy-in as they’re the only living things on screen for most of the film.
Jane Doe’s body is a puzzle, one that draws the Tildens further and further down a rabbit hole of weirdness and violence and supernatural activity. You would never think that a motionless corpse, flayed open and with organs removed, would have such a weight of menace to it, but as the movie progresses that passivity becomes its own sort of antagonism. Tommy’s steadfast belief in rational explanations in the face of increasingly un-rational events doesn’t overstay – it’s one thing to maintain disbelief when the radio is playing “Let the Sun Shine in” randomly or when their cat is found mutilated in a vent, but hearing the bell of a corpse as it begins moving about is another thing entirely.
The film’s pace, a steady slow-burn for much of the first hour, jumps significantly in the last third. It goes from a creepy, haunted… uh, body?… movie to a more visceral and violent “trapped by supernatural forces” film. I don’t want to go into the details of what happens and why, as there are a number of reveals that are fun to experience without knowing about them beforehand.
The morgue/crematorium setting is fantastic and contributes to the claustrophobic and creepy atmosphere that the film works hard to set up. The grimy mirrors in the corners of the hallways are used to great effect and the contrast between the dingy, well-used offices and crematorium with the high-tech and fairly spotless autopsy room provides great visual contrast.
The only negative aspect is that the twists are not as well constructed as I remembered. While I still enjoyed them, there’s a convolution to the reveals that is unnecessarily complicated, and the details don’t seem to fit as neatly as they could. The ending is still satisfying, it’s just that the final details leave you with questions that dilute their impact.
The Bottom Line
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is and atmospheric and creepy film that uses its claustrophobic set and small cast extremely well. Things start out odd and unsettling before ramping up to violent and threatening, with no one left unscathed (except perhaps the title character, though she’s been through enough, don’t you think?). It’s a great Halloween film and one that’s probably going to become a regular watch for me during this holiday season.