When you decide to spend Friday night in and marathon horror movies, you may not think of adding supernatural thriller The Autopsy of Jane Doe to a queue that likely includes Stranger Things and all manner of actual Stephen King adaptations. After all, you've likely never heard of it.
IFC Midnight's The Autopsy of Jane Doe first revealed its secrets at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. While it had a mostly positive reception, reviews don't always help when a movie isn't heavily advertised or shown theaters within driving distance for most audience members. You probably couldn't find it playing anywhere if you weren't close to a city, or at least a supermall. While Autopsy was even praised by King himself as "visceral horror to rival Alien", its $6 million profit was hardly enough to make it a blockbuster, so there was no extended run to buy more time for diehard horror fans.
Coming off his found-footage freak show Trollhunter, director Andre Øvredal wanted to take a stab at something different. Not that Trollhunter wasn't a monstrous chiller in itself. Øvredal, who was inspired by The Conjuring, was looking to plunge into pure horror, which is why he was finally sent the Black List script for Autopsy (also his first English-language film). Flashbacks and flashing lights give you a feeling of uncertainty and foreboding that Trollhunter sends crawling up your spine without the purposely shaky cameras. He also manages to capture the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped in the county morgue while all sorts of unexplainable things make you question your sanity.
Coroner Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) and his son Austin (Emile Hirsch) cut through corpses with rock music blasting in the background. If you don't have that kind of iron stomach, I recommend not eating for at least three hours before watching this movie, because you will see the kind of autopsy footage they blur out on Dr. G., Medical Examiner. What the Tildens don't know as they saw into the skull of a gruesomely decomposed body (cause of death: subdural hematoma) is that an especially bloody crime scene is being photographed by police in their corner of suburbia. What confuses the cops even more is the seemingly unrelated — and unidentified — female body they unearth in the victims' basement. She betrays no obvious signs of trauma and hasn't even started to decompose.
Just when Austin is about to escape the morgue after nine hours of investigating CODs that range from mesothelioma to strychnine poisoning, Jane Doe is wheeled in on a gurney. Guilt takes over, and while Austin swears to his girlfriend he'll be out by eleven so they can catch a midnight movie,. he has no idea what kind of show he's really in for. The external exam grows more and more confusing, as father and son collect pieces of evidence that just don't seem to fit. There is no connection between Jane Doe's severed tongue, shattered limbs and strangely deformed waist. Then things start to get weird.
The moment the coroner lifts his scalpel, static takes over the radio, which phases in and out of a grim weather forecast before landing on the creepiest retro song ever. There is something deeply unnerving about hearing the lyrics "Open up your heart and let the sun shine in" sung in a saccharine voice from the '50s when you're cutting into someone's body cavity. The song is just a prelude to a series of bizarre events that have no logical or scientific explanation. Maybe you missed the part of in which that too-happy voice merrily sings "it's all about the devil".
The radio turns itself on and off. Thunder rumbles in the background, ripping the sky open into a storm. Locked doors tremble and lightbulbs buzz in their final death throes. Windows burst into shards. Screams shatter the darkness. When the lights mysteriously come back on, more corpses appear than just those in the deep freeze.
Autopsy manufactures genuine fear even though it doesn't rely on bombastic special effects. There are no spirits from another realm or zombies with elaborate prosthetics. Thunder crashing, lights flickering on and off, and a radio changing stations on its own are all possible without CGI intervention. What could arguably be the most mind-blowing special effect is that the corpse on the gurney is not latex. Besides a few bloody prosthetics needed to perform the dissection, she was played by Olwen Kelly, who was seen as having the most difficult role in the film. I could have sworn there was no way this was a live human the first time I watched it—a testament to Kelly's performance. You only think that Jane Doe is expressionless until you really look her in the eyes and start to notice the slight changes n emotion that keep getting darker as frantic Tommy Tilden keeps cutting deeper and deeper to find a COD that isn't there.
Another part of what makes this film so eerily believable is its grittiness. It defies the sci-fi and horror stereotype of the antiseptic, fluorescent white lab that seems like it's on a spaceship, with assistants in bleached lab coats making Y-incisions on bloodless corpses. Autopsy is messy and uncomfortable. It exposes the literal and proverbial blood and guts of a story that spirals downward into the deepest shadows of the human mind.
But Autopsy isn't just gore for gore's sake. The only way for Tilden to make the deceased speak is with his scalpel and microscope. The specimens and slides are not just forgotten in the morgue refrigerator. Each one whispers another secret, another reason why an unscathed corpse that has supposedly been dead for days (at least) reveals internal stab wounds, poison, even fire. Every cut is deliberate, searching for another answer buried inside dead flesh—or at least what appears to be dead flesh.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe was all but buried after it ghosted in and out of theaters, which was a shame for legions of horror fans who could have given its almost nonexistent following a body. It isn't even on Netflix or any of the other seemingly countless streaming services I subscribe to. You'll have to buy or rent it on YouTube, iTunes or Amazon, but once you see the genius that lies under the skin of this underrated movie, you'll be inducted into the cult of Jane Doe.