Directed by: André Øvredal
Written by: Ian Goldberg & Richard Naing
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Brian Cox, Olwen Catherine Kelly
Explanations offer comfort even with the most disheartening topics. When a loved one goes missing, knowing the result of them being alive or dead at least provides the closure of finality to the situation. It makes the things in this world that happen to be inexplicable to be mysteriously horrifying. It’s what makes The Autopsy of Jane Doe so frightening to watch, as something as innocuous as a corpse haunts two innocent coroners.
Austin (Emile Hirsch) works with his father, Tommy (Brian Cox), who works as a coroner for a small town. One night, they receive a corpse provided by the police wondering what their cause of death might have been. In the process of distinguishing the information through an autopsy, the father and son discover some insidious findings that begin to spill out onto them.
I salute those who work with dead bodies in order to aid with investigations, as it’s a position that would frighten me at all levels. Corpses do not hold any intrinsic horror to them, but they represent the loss of life and the vessel left behind. It makes it comfortable to be around them, which once again makes me thank those who cut them open to find causes of death, which would then inform patterns with illnesses. The father and son combination of this film get the short end of the stick, as they simply try to do their job and thus get wrapped into a corpse that happens to have a mind of its own.
Throughout the night, the body happens to defy science, as internally the damages sustained does not match the exterior. The corpse appears to have died recently even with scientific evidence pointing that it’s been dead for several days. Nothing about this corpse makes any sense, which makes it all the more horrifying when inexplicable events occur like the smashing of the lights, loss of power, and what appears to be other corpses moving. All of the chaos transpiring occurs with the corpse of his Jane Doe just laying there like any dead body would. In a way, it reminds me of the Annabelle doll featured in The Conjuring films, where the stoic nature of the doll has its own horror despite it sitting perfectly still as any other doll would. In The Autopsy of Jane Doe, everything happens around the corpse but every time we believe something scary would be happening physically to the corpse, like it moving in any way, it just continues to lay there.
A nice feature to the film included little tricks to the trade. I always appreciate learning those little features when a film focuses on a specific career. Back in the day, it became a tradition for corners to attach a bell to a corpse in case they misinterpreted the person to be dead rather than alive and in a coma. A tradition that continues for Austin and Tommy but gets used incredibly well to incite some frightening sequences. It will not allow you to enjoy bells in the same way ever again. Along with utilizing the song “Open Up Your Heart,” this film knew how to utilize what would normally be calming things into horrifying sounds you wish to never hear again.
The mystery of the corpse unravels something more sinister with each new clue they find, which brings to light some idea of what this corpse represents but nothing gets spelled out explicitly. It makes for the horror to have its own resonance and makes it a horror film attempting to break the genre conventions. It makes The Autopsy of Jane Doe something worth seeking out in the way it traps you into a cellar with this lifeless body that would prefer nothing more than to see you die. It only gives me more reasons to not want to be coroner, as if I needed more.