Nameless Fears and Dead Women: The Autopsy of Jane Doe
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS!
The recent reboot of the Universal monsters series seems to be on shaky ground. To date, the much-hyped remake of The Mummy has only achieved a 15% score on Rotten Tomatoes and worse, it has failed to surpass its cost in ticket sales.
It seems as though returning to the iconic monsters that were so popular in the 1930s might not be reaching back far enough to appeal to horror film fans, especially when said return is buried in a gloss of action set pieces and CGI effects. Perhaps a basic examination of humanity’s most primal fears is in order. It is just this kind of approach that makes André Øvredal’s newest film an ingenious exercise in terror.
Øvredal, who captivated audiences with the ingenious found footage fantasy Troll Hunter in 2010, makes his English-language debut with The Autopsy of Jane Doe. The title teases a foreboding quality: what could be more primal than the fear of dead bodies? Rather than calling upon the monster heavies of the past, Øvredal and screenwriters Ian B. Goldberg and Richard Naing utilize the film’s central mystery as a means to introduce viewers into a frightening world.
Jane Doe is, literally, a tabula rasa. She has no name, no identifying marks, no identification, and no clothing. Her remarkably preserved corpse appears in the basement of an inexplicably violent crime scene, with no clues as to how it got there.
The audience meets this mysterious woman early on in the film, and she is brought to local mortician Tommy Tilden and his son Austin by the Sheriff, who also demands an ultimatum. A cause of death must be determined by the morning, just in time for a press conference that will attempt to make some sense of a seemingly senseless slaughter.
One of the remarkable aspects of The Autopsy of Jane Doe is how straightforward it feels at first. The crime scene and the slaughtered bodies are grisly, yes, but displayed in the vein of crime procedurals and without the stylized sheen of a typical horror film. The inner workings of the Tilden mortuary are visited in a series of slow, tracking shots which highlight dusty, dark hallways and a convex mirror. None of this seems out of the ordinary until a second viewing of the film, when it all seems foreboding and obvious.
The film makes marvelous use of introducing elements that are disturbing, but not out of place in a mortuary, which gives them an added level of creepiness, especially when Tommy is more matter-of-fact about them and Austin tries to protect his girlfriend Emma from the “things you can’t unsee.”
Seeing Jane Doe’s nude, prone body on an autopsy table is jarring, especially after her eyelids are pulled back to reveal grey, cloudy irises. Despite her expressionless face, she appears malevolent; she is a canvas onto which fears can be projected. Even though the autopsy procedures that are performed are standard, they seem slightly obscene, invasive on a level that is more than physical. As it turns out, that is exactly what they are.
An economic narrative, along with terrific special effects, ensures that everything which could turn sinister eventually does, from the eventual reveal of the missing face of the gunshot wound victim, to the wordless shriek from the lips of a woman whose mouth is sewn shut. The noise inside the air duct that is revealed to be a cat killing a rat is revisited; the second time the cat is the victim of something violent we cannot see. That convex mirror plays tricks on the Tilden men, as does the rickety elevator and the old radio in the examination room.
It’s fascinating that these elements are all genuinely terrifying, even as one realizes, however subconsciously, that they are coming. When Austin peeks under the door, one knows he’s going to see the foot of the corpse with a bell around his ankle, but when it happens, it’s still scary. When he chops a hole in the mysteriously locked door, it should be obvious that there will be a corpse’s face behind it, but it still elicits a scream. When the faceless corpse wanders through flickering lights and fog, the fear of seeing its mangled visage is not lessened by the understanding that it will eventually be shown.
What is even more skillfully handled are two major reveals, both of which tie into not only each other, but the mystery of Jane Doe as well.
While audiences might think that Tommy will smash the axe into the faceless corpse only to find there’s nothing there, it is shocking when the axe goes into Emma’s chest, killing her almost immediately. Austin’s grief-stricken response elicits a guilty confession from Tommy and details about his wife’s recent death that until now, have only been referred to in passing.
Tommy feels that he failed his wife by remaining in denial that she was clinically depressed, and tells Austin it was his fault that she killed herself. This feeds directly into his accidental killing of Emma, another instance of his senses also tricked him and resulted in a death. It also speaks to the plight of Jane Doe. It’s not Tommy’s fault that she was wrongfully accused of being a witch and tortured, but it still falls under the umbrella of bad things happening because of a form of denial, in her case, that witches were real. The denial was so strong, in fact, that she became a witch in death to exact supernatural vengeance.
It is not surprising that even after the Tildens figure out her secret and try to help her find peace, she still continues her reign of terror, but again, it is upsetting when it happens.
The only weak element in The Autopsy of Jane Doe is that, after so many scares, and so much believable anguish, the film ends on a somewhat goofy note, with “Open Up Your Heart (And Let The Sunshine In)” reprised on a car radio and the jangling bell noise that accompanies Jane’s twitching toe. It feels like the ending of Jeepers Creepers but much more silly, and seriously threatens to undermine the integrity of the whole film, much like the last shot of Bughuul did in the otherwise thoroughly scary Sinister.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe, despite these missteps, is still a strong and accomplished film from Øvredal and makes anticipation for his next film that much greater.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe was released on Blu-ray from Lionsgate on June 26.