My most immediate impression of this film is how luscious all the practical effects look. Everything is wet and fleshy and there’s a great sense of tactility that always seems to be missing when one watches a CGIed film.
The film has an 87% score on Rotten Tomatoes that’s really left me scratching my head because it’s such a neat little horror film, so much so that I’m not quite sure what else critics could ask for. It’s at times like this when you really question the value in giving everything a rating.
Sure, the second half/third act of the film falls into some pretty tried and tested horror tropes. But not every film needs to be ground-breaking! C’mon!
Anyway, very briefly, Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) is about a small town, family-owned morgue and crematorium outfit that receives a Jane Doe (Olwen Catherine Kelly) one night and has been tasked with identifying Cause of Death. The whole film takes place in the span of one night and over the length of time it takes the father-son team to complete the autopsy.
The workaday treatment of the horror of conducting an autopsy is very much in line with André Øvredal’s other critically acclaimed offering Troll Hunter (2011). Troll Hunter is a mockumentary that follows a troll hunter on his hunt for trolls in the dark woods. The matter-of-fact way in which trolls and the hunt for them by a professional troll hunter are presented in the mock documentary effectively normalises their existence – even their more supernatural attributes like being able to sniff out Christians (as if Christian blood gave off a different scent).
Similarly, Autopsy very quickly normalises the idea of working in a morgue cum crematorium and conducting autopsies. This setting on the outset of the film makes it very easy for Autopsy to turn tensions up to eleven-ty when the supernatural shit really hits the fan.
Autopsy feels to me like it’s part of a tradition of foreign horror films. Very much like the original Ringu (1998) and Ju-On (2000) there’s a great atmosphere of dread and an attempt to explain what’s going on but at the end of the day there’s no real explanation and the horror or the curse lives on and gets passed on to the next unsuspecting soul.
What tickled me even more is that the film flirts with the idea of offering an explanation only to undercut this at the end. The police-procedural format and the fact-finding dive into the innards of Jane Doe does everything to ramp up the supernatural tension in the film. Each unusual, logic-defying discovery leads to more confusion and more confirmation that there is something not right with this body. But when it comes to supplying characters and audiences with an explanation, there is none.
This refusal to offer any kind of working explanation for what the curse is or how to undo it is a smart move because all too often, horror films fall flat when they try and tell you why the supernatural happens. Oftentimes it’ll involve calling in an expert academic who will pull out some dusty tome with step-by-step instructions on how to vanquish the evil. In the case of Autopsy, the film sidesteps all of that unbelievable logic.
Instead, the processes that so often bring rationality to a situation, like an autopsy and forensic findings that help to provide evidence to solve a murder, only reveal these quaint, antiquated traditional/ herbal practices meant to subdue evil. They only confirm the body’s supernatural state, but say nothing about the source of its power.
We’re led to believe at first that each new layer that the forensic father-son team peel back and discover is releasing some kind of evil that, till that point, had been bound by the moon flower, and the shroud with the roman numerals, and the tattoos, but then we remember that the blood drenched murder scene that opens the film was also caused by the body with all its ritualistic trappings still intact.
Then we’re led to believe that maybe the piercing analysis offered by forensic science might suggest some kind of solution to this 17th century mystery. Nope. No dice. The body of Jane Doe just continues to fuck with everyone right till the very end.
I read some reviews that tried to rationalise the signs left on the body as marks of misogyny and that the trail of dead bodies is some kind of revenge for this. I suppose the signs of corsetry, Jane Doe’s backstory, and the deaths of the two male protagonists might lend themselves to this theory. But it doesn’t account for the female characters who die, and there’s also nothing to prove that the evidence of violence on the body was inflicted by men only.
The way in which critics and characters try to explain the body of Jane Doe really reflect the etymology of the word “autopsy” – Autos meaning “self”, and optos meaning “seen”. There’s a suggestive layering of self and other in the etymology of the word that is exemplified by Tommy Tilden (Brian Fox), the father, who puts his cat, Stanley, that has been gravely injured, out of its misery and believes he can do the same for Jane Doe. But really, it seems that he is the one who wants to be put out of the lingering misery of surviving his wife.
The open-endedness of this text (and the body as text) really leaves it up to the viewer to conduct their own autopsy to discover the meaning of the film. The lack of an explanation for what caused/created Jane Doe, what she wants or why she does what she does gives the audience a lot to work with. The film also frustrates the traditional horror narrative ending which is a return to the status quo and a reassertion of the norm – of logic and rationality. Instead, just like with what we’ve seen of Asian horror films, the inexplicable horror just gets passed on.