By Jonathan Wojcik
ENTRY: THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE
Written by Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing, directed by Andry Ovredal and released in 2016, The Autopsy of Jane Doe will hit some of the most typical, classic supernatural horror elements of almost anything in this feature, but remains one of my favorites for the novel vehicle of those elements, and there's still more than meets the eye here than just another vengeful ghost. It's also one I really recommend seeing for yourself before I spoil you completely, but I know a number of you are enjoying these reviews for the very reason that you can't even make it through horror movies. If you at least get a little spooked reading about them, I hope you enjoy this one.
When Sheriff Sheldon Burke (Michael Mcelhatton) investigates the site of a brutal multiple homicide, he finds one victim curiously out of place; an unidentified woman half-buried in the basement, whose body is almost unmarked (Olwen Kelly). She is clearly of no relation to the other victims, and the house shows no signs of forced entry...but several signs that the occupants may have tried to escape their own home. Sheldon needs to know a cause of death for the mystery woman ASAP, so he drops the body off with his trusted friend, local coroner Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox.) Tilden's son and assistant Austin (Emile Hirsch).
Austin was supposed to go out with his girlfriend Emma (Ophelia Lovibond) that night, but he knows he'll have to stay and help his father with the difficult case. She still drops by for a visit however, and is curious about her boyfriend's work. They show her one of the other "mysteries" they've been tasked with: the body of someone who appeared to have blown their own face off with a shotgun, but had enough poison in their bloodstream that they couldn't have really been alive at the time.
There's a bell tied to the body's toe, but this is just one of Tommy's personal little superstitious traditions; an old practice to make sure a corpse is really dead and not just comatose. Obviously that won't be an issue with a guy whose head is half gone! Ha ha ha.
After emma leaves, the two men get to work on their "Jane Doe," and the corpse is immediately puzzling. It has been at least a day since the murder victims were found, but this woman's body is in a much "fresher" condition, yet to even show the signs of rigor mortis that typically begin within a couple of hours of death. The exceptions to this are her eyes, which show several days worth of post-mortem deterioration. She also has peat encrusted under her nails and in her hair, which is not the type of soil she was found buried in.
Despite no external scars or even bruises, the body's wrists and ankles are completely shattered. Her tongue is also gone, and so is a single molar which appears to have been freshly removed. Finally slicing into the body they discover that her lungs are as blackened as someone who burned to death, and the rest of her organs are marked with scars and cuts that should not have been possible without matching wounds on her skin.
As they work, an intense storm begins to develop outside and interferes with the electricity. The door to one of the body drawers keeps popping open, refusing to remain latched, and the radio keeps changing stations to one that repeatedly plays the classic song "Open Up Your Heart (And Let The Sunshine In." If you don't know the song, enjoy the very same recording used in the film: Two things of interest are found within the woman's stomach: deadly poisonous jimsonweed, which is not found in that part of the country, and a small bundle of cloth. This is revealed to contain her missing molar along with strange writing, and similar writing is found to be tattooed to the inside of her skin. It is at this point that a power surge causes the lights in the room to actually burst, and as soon as Austin turns on his phone's flashlight, all of the morgue's drawers are hanging open, with their bodies nowhere to be seen.
The two men are a little more savvy than your average horror protagonists. They accept immediately that there's no logical explanation for what just happened and that they should get the hell out of there. Unfortunately, the exit to outside is now blocked by a fallen tree, and the only other way out is an elevator to the upper floor that is now malfunctioning. But, oh yeah, they can hear the sound of someone else shuffling around in the dark. And they can hear a bell. They hide in an office and the walking corpse attempts to force its way in, which they manage to prevent, but Tommy is attacked by someone or something unseen when he enters the bathroom, and it's somehow gone by the time Austin comes to his aid. They realize they have no safe hiding spot, and agree that if the Jane Doe is responsible for these events, they should try cremating her.
Nothing gets in their way as they return to the autopsy room, but they are trapped inside when the doors lock shut behind them. Austin begins to break through them with an axe, but once again the hall is occupied by the animate dead, and it is clear that they will not be allowed to move Jane to the furnace.
They try burning her anyway, right in the exam room, but she turns out to be exceptionally flammable, practically exploding with flames that spread around the room until extinguished, and of course, her body is left perfectly unmarred. Now that they know cremating her won't even work, the hallway seems to be clear again, and they can hear the sound of their elevator reactivating. Is she letting them leave?
No such luck. The elevator shuts down again, leaving them cornered as the sound of a bell once again comes closer and closer down the pitch dark hall. It's a tense scene, the shuffling cadaver kept in total darkness until a light flickers for practically only a quarter second, easily missed if you so much as blink. If you want to see it and you aren't squeamish, you can click here, but fair warning. It's not an image really meant to be lingered on, in any case; the flicker on-screen is just exactly enough to get the horrible gist of it.
This is when Tommy finally swings his axe into the attacker...which is suddenly revealed to have been Emma, killed almost instantly by the strike, and we will never know why she had come back, how she had gotten inside, whether she had ever left at all or what exactly she was seeing or hearing as her boyfriend and his father defended themselves against a "walking corpse."
There is little time to mourn. Still unable to leave the morgue, they realize there may be no course left to take but to finish what they started. The way back to the autopsy room is by now filled with smoke from the fire, and we have another intense scene as they're attacked by corpses we can barely see through the haze, and I'd argue that they're significantly more frightening than even the gruesome individual we previously glimpsed.
Tommy suffers several blows from unseen hands or weapons, but the two make it back to their clammy friend once more and pick up where they left off: they still haven't checked for any damage to her brain. The good news is her brain is healthy! The bad news is her brain is healthy! We mean her brain is s t i l l a l i v e. The active, pulsing cellular activity combined with the phenomena they've witnessed suggest to Tommy she is fully sensate, lashing out in defense at everything they've done to her body.
Austin notices something about the piece of cloth they retrieved from her stomach, discovering that it refers to a bible passage. The two determine from there that the woman had been brutally tortured and executed as a witch, but Tommy notes that "witch trials" were never anything but overblown hysteria, accusations thrown on no basis at all. He posits that she may have been like any normal human being at one time, but that the hideous ritual she endured is what created the restless and vengeful entity.
Tommy is overwhelmed with sympathy for the horror this woman has continued to endure for centuries, not to mention what she might have felt as he took her apart and attempted to burn her. He speaks directly to her for the first time, and tells her that he's willing to do whatever will help her if she leaves his son alone. Suddenly he reels in pain; his wrists and ankles crack, he oozes blood, he even belches up soot as the corpse's own wounds begin to disappear.
Austin can't bear to let his father suffer such a slow, agonized death, and stabs him directly in the heart with a scalpel to end his misery. You may have realized, of course, that the process going on between Tommy and "Jane" was probably not done yet.
All goes quiet, until Austin hears the sound of someone banging on the basement doors, and the voice of a police officer. I am going to share a clip for you here. It does not contain any gore, blood, corpses, violence or any kind of jump scare, and in fact it would not be a frightening clip at all outside the context of this movie, but I think it might stay with a few of you for quite some time:
Sorry if the clip is jittery or glitched (that's a browser problem, as far as I'm aware) but the audio should work, and that's what's important. You can still practically see this poor guy's blood run cold, anyway. He backs up, turning away for a moment, and turns back to find himself staring face to face with his father's dead body. He reels, stumbling backward over the railing of the rickety stairwell and dies instantly when he breaks his neck.
The following morning, Sheriff Burke looks over the bizarre scene. Three more bodies, one of them his oldest friend, and the unmistakable record of a detailed autopsy surrounds a corpse that does not appear to have ever been cut into. In another display of unusually sound judgment for a horror film, the one and only thing Burke knows is that he wants this dead woman gone from his entire county. Now.
The last thing we see is "Jane Doe" in the back of a transport vehicle. As the radio begins to play a now familiar song, her big toe makes a single, subtle twitch.
MONSTER ANALYSIS: THE CORPSE
With many classic trappings of a "haunting" and even tropes as overdone as a connection to the Salem Witch Trials, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is perhaps a bit conventional for this feature, but a vengeful "spirit" interfering with its own autopsy isn't so conventional a setup, and there's the little sticking point that this can't be considered a ghostly presence if she isn't really dead. She is mostly dead, yes, select parts of her are even beginning to decay, but she's technically still teetering on the very edge of mortality, frozen in time before the actual final moment of complete brain-death.
The questions raised throughout the course of the film are masterfully tantalizing. It's assumed by Tommy and perhaps the production itself that everything amiss is the result of her original execution, but we can't truly know what she's been through in the centuries since Salem. For that matter, we can't even know if Salem was really where it all began; she could have become the anomalous "corpse" well before the 1960's, repeatedly rediscovered and desecretated over countless efforts to lay her to rest. Either way, she had to have had quite the journey to end up buried under a suburban home far, far away from the site of any known inquisition.
It's a splendidly terrifying angle for a horror villain, one that is "already dead" but not in any traditional "undead" or even "ghostly" sense; she never does exhibit any sort of telekinesis, astral projection, possession or poltergeist activity. She only causes very, very bad things to happen around her, the perceptions of the living become dangerously warped the more harm they may inflict upon her, and the bodies of the dead may even come to her aid if we assume those weren't all strictly illusionary. The fact that everything she does is just an ongoing act of self defense is perhaps her most chilling quality as an antagonist; she likely cannot fully grasp everything that happens to her, knowing only that she is suffering pain and indignity again and again, her fear and anger reflexively affecting her surroundings.
Before his death, Tommy speculates (probably correctly) that their modern methods have likely taught them more about the woman's pain and brought them closer to ending it than anyone before them. She wants, at bare minimum, for her suffering to simply be acknowledged. Tommy is likely also the first person to offer his help, and it's likely that she would have finally known peace if Austin hadn't cut short the process of his father's sacrifice.
This is one entry that doesn't even come with any obvious social commentary or artistic symbolism to break down; it's pure straightforward Scary Story, perhaps even in the running for the scariest we'll be looking at all month.