The spooky season is upon us! Although Halloween is every day for yours truly, I know that October is the time when most people like to turn out the lights, pull up the blankets, and get their ‘fraidy pants scared straight off them. Now, I am all for the classics which I grew up with – Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th; these never get old, surely. But as time goes on, I find myself tending towards films which are just a little bit different than the traditional slasher movies. One of my favorites is The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016), directed by Andre’ Øvredal and starring Emile Hirsch, Brian Cox, and Olwen Kelly.
Tommy Tilden (Cox) and his son, Austin (Hirsch), operate a family-owned mortuary in the basement of their home where they work as medical examiners for the small town, performing autopsies and determining cause of death. Late one dark and stormy night, the sheriff arrives at their facility with the nude body of a young woman (Kelly), inexplicably dug up in the basement of a family home where there had been multiple unexplained murders earlier in the day. The woman is completely out of place in the home, belonging to neither the family nor the town, and seems positively untouched in her appearance. The sheriff urges Tommy to get a rush on cause of death, as this woman’s body is the one thing about the tragic events that he cannot explain away to assuage the public.
Externally, the woman is flawless – porcelain skin, not a bruise, cut, or scratch in sight. It’s only when they open her up for the internal examination that they notice the oddities. Shattered wrists and ankles, tongue gruffly cut from her mouth, a jimson weed blossom in her digestive tract, and a missing molar, which they find bundled in a small mysterious shroud mixed in with her stomach contents. Her lungs have been burnt and blackened, and her heart contains scar tissue as if from a knife fight. The flesh on her back, once opened and peeled away, reveals what appears to be ancient script. As the two struggle to decipher the clues of the body on the slab, strange things begin to happen in the mortuary.
The radio in the exam room begins to go haywire, switching stations, and continually returning to a very creepy song called Open Up Your Heart (and Let the Sunshine In). The three corpses residing in the remaining mortuary chambers begin to be heard walking about in the hallways. Tommy and Austin discover that they are now locked in their basement mortuary, unable to escape the unusual events going on around them.
Austin becomes convinced that the mayhem currently ensuing is caused by the dead woman, and suggests that perhaps, if they can determine her ultimate cause of death, they can somehow complete her story and stop her – a thought which is a bit of a reach admittedly, but I’m willing to look past that. The two work quickly to finish the last step in the autopsy, which is to take a sample of the woman’s brain. Upon examination under the microscope, they discover that she still has full brain function. Somewhere inside of her body, she’s still alive, and can feel everything that has been done to her. Returning to other evidence, they piece together the puzzle. Pete moss under the nails. Roman numerals on the shroud. A body from the northeast, New England, circa 1693.
Tommy begins to postulate: perhaps, in the efforts to put an accused witch to death, they “accidentally created the very thing they were trying to destroy?” He pleads with her to spare his son, and to instead take her revenge out on him. Tommy promptly begins to physically experience the torture that the woman went through in life, and meets a painful and unfortunate end.
A little background that may surprise some people and not necessarily others: there were no witches in Salem, Massachusetts. The horrific events of 1692-1693 were the result of an isolated, struggling village with strict religious beliefs, bored children, and no knowledge of legal proceedings, and which ultimately suffered a devastating bout of mass hysteria. (For those interested in this topic, I encourage you to check out a book called The Devil in Massachusetts by Marion Starkey.) There is many a movie that uses these events to play on fears (or for some of us, excitements) that witches were present in Salem, and to weave a tale that involves their execution, their promises to resurrect and exact vengeance, and their ultimate return to prove that they meant business. However, The Autopsy of Jane Doe puts a whole different spin on Salem. They hold true to what really happened in the village, and propose a theory in which Jane was in fact an innocent who has become the witch by the actions of the very people trying to put a stop to it. It’s a fascinating new take! For those interested in paranormal activity, I wonder how many of those executed Salem have returned to the village as spirits, but as something much darker than they were in life. I’ve never been there; if you have, drop a comment and let me know what you’ve found.
The filming of the movie is fantastic; I love a story that takes place in one location, especially when the actors can really sell it, which Cox and Hirsch did. Additionally, Øvredal brilliantly filmed this movie with the intent for it to be viewed twice, I’m sure. Each scene which shows Tommy and Austin prodding and slicing into the corpse is so subtly yet poignantly filmed. The first time you watch it, you see nothing more than an autopsy; the second time, after you’ve learned that she can feel it all, you see violation and torture. It really makes you cringe.
One of the most interesting tidbits that I’ve learned about this film, however, is that Olwen Kelly, the model who played Jane Doe, actually acted in the majority of this movie. She lied motionless for countless hours, stark naked, while Cox and Hirsch interacted around her. Many of the scenes during which Tommy and Austin are performing the autopsy were done on Kelly herself using prosthetics, and I’ve learned that she developed a method of shallow breathing so as to appear as cold and dead as possible. In an interview on the film, Brian Cox said of Kelly, “If there’s an award for dead acting, she should get it.” I couldn’t agree more.
I love witches, I love Salem, and I love this movie. And if you’re in the mood for something just a little different this Halloween season, I encourage you to check it out, and let me know what you think!
Production Budget: n/a
Domestic Total Gross: $10,474
Foreign Total Gross: $5,972,942
Total Box Office Gross: $5,983,416
Starring: Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch, Ophelia Lovibond
Directed by: André Øvredal
Written by: Ian Goldberg, Richard Naing
Release Date: December 21, 2016
Runtime: 1 hrs. 27 min.
MPAA Rating: R