The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a movie that I find to be extremely effective in its simplicity. Set almost entirely within the basement of a funeral parlor, the basic plot is that of father and son, Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austin (Emile Hirsch), who are brought in a last-minute body for which an autopsy and cause of death is needed by the next morning. Austin postpones his date with his girlfriend, Emma (Ophelia Lovibond), in order to stay and help his father complete the work. However, the Jane Doe that has been brought in has some secrets that will prove disturbing, and as the duo continue to work and attempt to puzzle out their strange findings, things become more and more terrifying. (NOTE: Spoilers from here on.)
This movie is definitely not for the faint of heart, but the autopsy aspect doesn’t really seem to be any more gory than what I’ve seen on numerous police procedurals. The setting itself is an aspect of horror, since the embalming and autopsy rooms of a funeral parlor are areas that instinctively cause us to cringe. Once Tommy and Austin begin the autopsy, though, it becomes clear that things are very odd. The girl has severe injuries internally – to bones and organs – that are not reflected on her unblemished skin. As they go deeper, they find evidence that she has swallowed some things that could have caused death, but there is no evidence of it within her organs. By the time they get to the point of locating strange symbols somehow tattooed or burned into the inside of her skin, it has become clear that there is something going on here that is definitely supernatural.Throughout the process, the radio that the duo listens to switches from what sounds like a normal broadcast to an eerie rendition of an old gospel song. Additionally, a huge storm begins to brew and blow outside the funeral home. The lights flicker, go out, and the other corpses in the freezers decide to get up a take a stroll. Here, the outdated use of toe bells on the corpses, which is used humorously by Tommy to give Emma a scare at the beginning, comes back later as an ominous and terrifying signal that the dead are no longer lying peacefully. By the time the storm outside has managed to trap father and son within the funeral home, it’s clear that this Jane Doe has powers within her that are impossible to defend against, and Tommy and Austin are both fated to succumb to her furious revenge as is an unfortunate Emma, returning for her late date with Austin.
I really love that this movie gives us only the point of view of two men who have no information to go on about the deceased other than what they find within her body. Each time I watch the movie I’m especially impressed by how frightening Jane Doe is without ever actually moving on her own. We get a series of hints at what she is as the autopsy is performed: a waist that has been made smaller than usual by the regular use of a corset; the finding of peat beneath her fingernails (a medium that is known to greatly preserve bodies that have been buried in it); a cloth bag with an inscription and holding a part of her body (her tooth); lungs that appear to have been burned. All of these clues point toward the type of damage that someone would have received if they had been tortured as a witch in the 1700’s. The addition, however, of the symbolic spell work on the inside of her skin is extremely interesting, and the conclusion of Tommy that Jane Doe had potentially been made into a witch by the very tortures meant to incriminate her is an intriguing twist on the tropes.
However, it’s the ending of this movie that really has the payoff for me. The police come in to a scene where all parties are dead, and it is just not clear what has happened. In fact, Austin could easily be seen as being responsible for all of the deaths, including his own, a fact made more horrifying since throughout the situation Austin had been the one who had wanted to stop the procedure, seeing early on that there was something not quite right. Now we see that Jane Doe’s body is pristine again, as if they had never begun working on her. And, we hear the radio announcer state that today will be the fourth day of full sunshine in a row, meaning that the storm that the father and son fought through the night before was one that only affected them and their interpretation of reality. We get the feeling that Jane Doe is nowhere near finished with her revenge and that the next funeral home that takes her in will likely also be afflicted with tragedy.
This movie has gotten a reputation for being a quiet and hard hitter for good reason. The pacing never lags and the story is extremely well-crafted with small nuances that allow for further exploration upon repeated viewing. If you’re looking for a witch movie with a twist this Halloween season, you can’t go wrong here!