Back in October, I received one of the most fascinating, if not slightly macabre, emails letting me know that the “body” from The Autopsy of Jane Doe was posted up on the floor of New York Comic-Con. Having heard great things from many of my colleagues who had seen the film at Fantastic Fest just weeks before, I scurried down from the press room to get a closer look. There was Jane: her sticky flesh peeled backward from her chest; the blunt edges of her exposed ribs yielding to squishy organs; her gaping mouth and clouded eyes staring eerily at the convention ceiling. She was awesome.
On film, however, Jane bodes a lot more scary and dangerous as a father and son team discovers one fateful evening as they begin an autopsy on the mysterious body. The film opens with Sheriff Sheldon (Game of Thrones’ Michael McElhatton) investigating the slaughter of an entire family in their own home. The murders are brutal and there seems to be no sign of a break-in, leaving Sheldon reasonably puzzled until he is called into the basement. There, unearthed from a bed of red clay, is the naked body of an unknown woman, our eponymous Jane Doe. With even more questions than answers, Sheldon brings the body to Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox), who runs the town’s small morgue, hoping that an autopsy can provide some clues to the woman’s identity, and perhaps the gruesome murders as well.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe boasts an impressive cast, led by veteran Cox, McElhatton, Ophelia Lovibond, as well a truly wonderful Emile Hirsch. Hirsch’s Austen, Tilden’s son and partner in the autopsy room, is our gateway into the cold and scientific world. After wrapping up an autopsy with his father, Austen heads upstairs into the family’s large and gloomy home to meet his girlfriend, Emma (Lovibond) for a date. Emma is fascinated by the house, an heirloom paneled in dark wood and long hallways lined with small electric lamps, and asks Austen to bring her to the autopsy room for a peek. He obliges but stops short of showing her one of the bodies stored in the freezer. Tommy, amused by the girl’s macabre sense of adventure, tells her to pick a body. Her choice, the victim of a gunshot blast to the face, has a small bell tied around its ankle. Tommy explains that this was an old method used to make sure corpses were indeed dead.
Of course, the gunshot victim and ancient bell will come back into play later on in the film, when all hell breaks loose. But the corpse’s introduction is just one of the ways in which director André Øvredal (Trollhunter) is able to ratchet up the tension by playing on our most primal fear. The gunshot victim lies on a cold metal slab with a blood-splattered sheet draped over a sunken-in lump of a face. We both dread and need to see what lies underneath and Øvredal is aware of this. Death looms large in The Autopsy of Jane Doe by default of course, but the battle between our fear of the dead and the necessary clinical detachment present in the autopsy room continuously pulls the audience in different directions, allowing each scare to register, rather than get dull as the film progresses.
Our Virgil in the unfamiliar world of the mortuary is Tommy, a man driven by scientific reason and knowledge but with a respect for tradition. Before Austen and Emma can head out on their date, Sheriff Sheldon shows up with the body of Jane Doe asking Tommy to perform an autopsy and provide him with answers by the morning. Austen, compelled to help his father, postpones his date, slaps on gloves, and gets to work. As the film progresses and we see Tommy in action, leading Austen (and the audience) through the autopsy, he explains how the body holds clues to its death and former existence – clues that will come in handy to identify Jane Doe. Watching Tommy in action is more satisfying than any episode of CSI, he moves slowly and methodically, explaining things as he goes along. Even as strange things start to happen, we feel safe under Tommy’s guidance because he has an explanation for everything. Despite Austen’s, and perhaps our own unease, Tommy is able to lull us back into a sense of safety – one which doesn’t exist, of course.
When the autopsy of Jane Doe finally begins, we already have a sense of apprehension, one that turns to dread as the two cut deeper into the body. Upon the first incision, blood begins trickling out, something that shouldn’t happen with a dead body. Jane Doe’s body yields some clues – there is peet under her nails, her stomach contains a flower, used as a paralyzing agent, and a strange parchment, covered in symbols and containing her own tooth – but they only raise more questions and the cause of death, the biggest clue of all, continues to elude Tommy. As the two continue working into the night, a fierce storm rages outside, the radio starts going haywire, and finally, the power goes out, leaving us in a dark house filled with corpses and inexplicable supernatural rage. Whatever Tommy and Austen have unlocked, we know it doesn’t bode well.
The body’s big reveal is too good to spoil, but paired with the film’s dark ending, it’s a satisfying answer to the body’s tantalizing clues. But beyond the scares, Øvredal is able to ground the film by exploring the relationship between Tommy and Austen, a father and son bound by a shared tragedy that reminds them of the heavy burden of grief, despite their clinical approach to death. This human element doesn’t just bond us to the characters, but it helps us invest in their struggle against the supernatural and their ultimate fate. In conjunction with this, The Autopsy of Jane Doe also questions society’s best intentions and our own culpability in creating monsters. It is a timely and subtle commentary as the landscape of American politics grows darker and more confusing with each passing day.
Currently in theaters and available on VOD, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a satisfying end to what has been a great year for horror and fans won’t be disappointed by its scares and secrets.
Related Topics: Horror