I’m not one to issue warnings about the things I write, especially on websites dealing in horror fiction aimed at an audience that craves gore and fright as much as the oxygen they breathe. Still, I’m about to share not only spoilers but, at times, my own semi-graphic recollection of my experiences with the dead. It’s the sort of stuff that changes the way your perceive life not to mention horror. For people outside of a military or emergency service background, you may find this a bit uncomfortable. Given the subject matter of the film and my intention to enhance your viewing experience, I’m going to urge you to stop and consider whether or not you really want to read this article.
In late 2009 I had the opportunity to attend an autopsy and it was simultaneously the most humbling and horrifying experience of my entire life. The room was sterile, open with bright fluorescent lights making it feel more like an auditorium than a morgue. The air was rich in the smell of ammonia, disinfectants, and meat and desperately cold. The body was wheeled out of an industrial walk in freezer and placed on a stainless steel table where, over the course of the next hour or so, it was stripped apart and disassembled with a sort of efficiency you’d expect to see in a mechanic’s shop. Each and every piece that had made a complete man was carefully excised and examined, weighed, measured and observed before the findings were marked on a dry erase board. As the exam ended, the pieces were placed in a thick, clear plastic bag and returned to the excavated thoracic cavity the way giblets and placed in a turkey before it goes into the freezer at the grocery store. This was the sort of personal experience I took with me going into The Autopsy of Jane Doe.
Set in rural Virginia, the story opens in the middle of a crime scene. Three bodies, locals, have died brutally in their own home, seemingly at each other's hands. As if that wasn’t strange enough, in the root cellar, partially buried, is a beautiful young woman with absolutely no signs of trauma or injury at all who has no identification and, seemingly, no connection to the trio dead in the house upstairs. Sheriff Sheldon, desperately looking for answers, turns to the town’s local mortuary for help. Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austin Tilden (Emile Hirsch) are a father and son duo operating a morgue and crematorium that also serves as an extension of the coroner’s office for the county. They’re just finishing up their exam on a burn victim when the sheriff arrives with the mysterious Jane Doe and a plea that the autopsy be conducted that night. Putting off a date with his girlfriend Emma, Austin stays to help his father.
The exam room is what you expect of a horror movie and, in truth, what most would expect of a small town in general. In the basement of a funeral parlor, the building itself is a century old and most of everything from the wood panel walls and cubicle styled individual freezers to the chalkboard and transistor radio build an atmosphere of a place where time itself is standing still. Being (unfortunately) no stranger to funeral homes I could smell the air of floral deodorizers, dust, and ammonia stirred by a hobbled air conditioner struggling to cool the basement examination room. They lay her onto a table that feels more like a sacrificial altar than an actual morgue table and begin their work. With rockabilly music intermittently broken by static, weather bulletins, and an ominous sort of creepy kid’s tune, they go to work. The external exam reveals shattered wrists and ankles, a severed tongue, and a cloth lodged in her throat containing one of her teeth and some Roman numerals. All signs have started to point towards human trafficking as they continue their work.
That’s when everything starts to go wrong. As they begin to cut her open, snipping away her ribcage with garden shears, they continue to discover baffling damage to her internal organs that has no explanation. Outside a storm is blowing through and soon knocks out the lights, giving the corpses in the coolers behind the Tildens ample time to escape. With the back up generator too weak to operate the elevator and the doors leading up to the side of the home blocked by a felled tree, things begin to look bleak. The bodies in the drawers, presumably under the Jane Doe’s control, begin to hunt for the coroners. Finally, deciding that the only way to end the madness is to figure out what secrets their mystery cadaver holds, they return to complete the autopsy. The picture they paint is of a young woman, tortured and placed into a terrible state of undeath. Alive and able to suffer in spirit and mind but functionally dead since she was accused of witchcraft in Salem in the 1600s. The punishment and ritual torture inflicted on the girl in turn made he into the thing that people had feared. Now, a restless spirit trapped in an incorruptible flesh, she makes those she encounters share in the pain inflicted on her.
I was expecting literally anything from The Autopsy of Jane Doe. From crazed necrophilia to zombies and demonic possession, I thought there was no way I could have been surprised yet somehow I was. What I hadn’t seen coming was that connection between the corpse and witchcraft. I was expecting her to be some Stephen King styled psychic vampire or the devil wrapped in a meat suit. Instead I saw a completely innocent young girl, tortured, abused, and robbed of the precious gift of life far before it had been her time. As if that in itself wasn’t tragedy enough, she died so terribly and, in the process of that fear and abuse, became exactly the monster she had been accused of being. It was an interesting twist.
The effects are perfectly tailored to the dark atmosphere and tone established right from the start and blend both practical and CGI in a way that bigger budget films haven’t really done in a long time. No, there isn’t anything groundbreaking about it. The cadavers are creepy and, if you’ve never actually seen a dead body, believable enough and the use of shadow and obstructions only adds to the unsettling nature of the creatures as they shuffle through the narrow, dimly lit halls. As they completely skin Jane Doe in one scene, revealing the inside of her flesh to be tattooed in the same runic glyphs and numerals as the parchment crammed down her throat, I could only marvel at the novelty of the event. At the same time, I felt several parts of the autopsy itself to be lacking, not the least of which being the examination of the brain. When the bone saw began to whir, I could smell that almost burnt ozone of skull dust kicking into the air. What was lacking, however, from this and every other movie where a braincase gets opened was the actual noise. If you’ve ever heard that unnerving crack as a skull splits, you might be happy to never hear it again. For me, though, hearing that deafening thunderclap as the screw turns and that freshly cut seam snaps would only add to the realism and uncomfortable horror such a movie offers.
The performances are solid, quality work and are mercifully free of stereotyping. Set in the rural South, I never heard one over exaggerated Southern drawl or euphemism. Hollywood has a habit of painting everyone from Texas to Virginia -especially those outside of the larger cities- as uneducated yokels with colorful anecdotes and mild to severe racist tendencies but otherwise little else to offer unless guided by a more urbane and learned character from elsewhere in the nation. There are exceptions to this, of course, but most often the characters belong in a Gone With the Wind remake or an episode of Hee-Haw. It was a breath of fresh air to see normal, intelligent people from this region represented on film for a change.
Director André Øvredal. Øvredal, brought us the 2010 Trollhunter
Horror takes on a new perspective if you’ve ever been in some of the situations the films depict. Being third generation in emergency services I’ve seen not only seen and heard some of the most gruesome things but have grown up being regaled with stories of heroic deeds and barbarous acts. I felt myself walking through that mortuary, feeling the stale, poorly circulated air chilling my skin. I could smell the deodorant sprays and floral perfumes that poorly mask the wet copper and perforated bowel that lingers in these places. The sense of overwhelming dread knowing that you’re not alone as you struggle through a poorly lit corridor towards an uncertain end… yeah, been there. The movie is well written, wonderfully acted and with an unsettling atmosphere and even more unsettling subject matter courtesy of director André Øvredal. Øvredal, who brought us the amazing, 2010 mockumentary styled Trollhunter did phenomenal work establishing character and tone with every shot and forced us to look into the milk clouded eyes of our own worst fears forced upon an innocent woman. Feel her judgement, her retribution as we pay for the sins of a frightened, panicked people who chose to commit the ultimate act of brutality in order to save themselves from their own terror. It’s the first film in a long time that has actually creeped me out and if you haven’t watched it yet, you’re missing out.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is streaming now on Amazon and Google. The DVD/BluRay release dates are still to be announced.
Dan Lee is a horror fiend and freelance writer with a special place in his heart for monster movies and demonic possession stories.