When I took Horror Film Seminar as my elective, I told my eldest sister about it. She was incredulous, wondering why I took Horror Film. Upon pressing her for an explanation, she shared to me that she is not horror film fan. She told me that she was alright with horror films that hew closer to sci-fi; she cited Train to Busan (2016) as an example of such. However, she couldn’t take it if it’s something more supernatural, such as The Exorcist (1973); she states that those are the films that give her nightmares. Knowing my sister, she couldn’t handle the idea of something else being in control rather than her; she wants to view movies as if she is two steps ahead of the characters. Unfortunately, horror films would not hand over control to an audience, like my sister. And unfortunately, she couldn’t handle a film such as The Autopsy of Jane Doe.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) is a well-made horror film, and even with removing its genre trappings, the film stands as an excellent one. The scares of the film are amplified by its production design and the slow build-up of visual and visceral cues. Credits to the wonderful mise en scene, complementing the shadow lighting with the narrow morgue set-piece; such a setup made it possible to vicariously experience a claustrophobic feeling ascribed to the main characters. Personally, this is the first André Øvredal film that I’ve seen. Based on this alone though, Øvredal has shown quite a distinctive visual style and I look forward to watching more of his films.
As I watched the film, I couldn’t shake the fact that the main characters were played by Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild, Milk) and Brian Cox (X2, Bourne series). Even with that thought, I still found Hirsch and Cox’s performances superb. Cox was convincing as the coroner Tommy Tilden, a skeptic-turned-believer of the supernatural throughout the film. A standout, underrated scene for him was his silent hurt over the fatal injury of the family cat, Stanley; even as he ends the misery of Stanley, Cox plays Tommy not as the cliche cold coroner but as someone who is keeping his emotions tightly and excruciatingly wounded. Cox’s father-son chemistry with Hirsch, who plays Tommy’s son Austin, was superb and the latter was able to make the most of the limited emotional scenes in the movie, particularly during the climax.
However, the true star of the film was Jane Doe herself. Olwen Kelly convincingly played the seemingly deceased title character and even with a frozen expression in her face, she was able to portray dread and a sense of the ethereal with her look. What is most astounding is how she kept her poise to “stay dead” during the autopsy scenes. According to Øvredal, this was achieved by Kelly because of her background in shallow breathing and yoga (Collis, 2016). Even with the knowledge of this fact, it could not diminish the fact that Kelly’s silent performance was the magnet that pulled together the entire film.
Now that the film has been reviewed, I shall now focus on the analysis of how The Autopsy of Jane Doe utilizes the “moves” which are ascribed to horror films. I shall use a “move-based” approach to the film and to the horror genre in general, as per the jargon of Graham Sleight.According to Sleight, “moves” give a sense of actions or events that are specific to the genre. In the case of the horror film, there are four distinct “moves” (Sleight).
Let us now attempt to identify the four “moves” in the movie. The first is called the sighting. is the “glimpse of the terror” to come, something deceptive and unfamiliar yet eerily familiar (Clute, 2012). In the case of Autopsy, this “move” is seen in the initial observations of the titular autopsy. The sighting occurs when Jane Doe’s eyes are examined and shown to be cloudy. Tommy states that cloudy eyes are to be expected on corpses that are dead for days, but then, Jane Doe’s “corpse” does not seem that way. Here, Tommy states his familiarity with corpses but he notices something unusual.
The next move is called the thickening. Thickening occurs when shady things happen during the film; disappearances happen, something doesn’t add up, and the characters are confused and feel trapped under their circumstances (Clute, 2012). The world that was built at the start of the film gets lost during the thickening. For Autopsy, it is the slow burn of eerily strange events since the autopsy started. Some of which include the injury of the Tildens’ cat, the electric outages, and Jane Doe’s body being fireproof. Most interesting among the events during the thickening was the bell ring. It is fascinating how the film manages to make a simple sound effect the ominous and dreaded sign throughout the whole film.
Following the thickening is the revel. It is during the revel that the malevolent force is revealed. It is when the repressed entity stops welling up and is finally disclosed within the confines of “civilization” and the film “begins to tell it as it is”. Autopsy does this move with the revelation that Jane Doe is still alive and she is older than she seems; Jane Doe is a victim and accidental “monstrous creation” of the Salem Witch Trials and passes on to her prey the pain she experienced. The movie makes an interesting choice on how to use this “move”.
What is interesting is how Autopsy cleverly uses this move. Normally, horror films tend to show the monster up close and much more menacing to achieve the revel. However, Autopsy chooses to make the monster remain silent, with Jane Doe keeping her “deceased” appearance throughout. For the film’s revel, Austin and Tommy are able to realize the “truth” by piecing together clues as if they were in a crime procedural a la CSI. The exposition then seems less contrived than expected.
As the film reaches its close, the final move called the aftermath happens. In the aftermath, things may seem to go back to status quo. Normal events happen and maybe even the main characters are back to their routine. However, the viewers and the main characters know that the malevolent force still exists. The resolution shows that there seems to be no problem but in reality, it is “All problem” with no solution (Clute, 2012).
In Autopsy, the Tildens perish as a result of Jane Doe’s strange machinations, but that does not comprise the aftermath. Instead, the aftermath happens when Sheriff Burke (Michael McElhatton) investigates the deaths of the Tildens. Realizing that this scene was similar with the events at the start of the film, Burke realizes the troubling trend and has Jane Doe’s body moved out of the county. As for an additional flourish, the aftermath even features one last ominous bell ring from Jane Doe, signifying that she is still alive and ready to commit the horrors to her next victims.
To summarize, Autopsy of Jane Doe features an exceptional story able to psychologically induce dread to the viewers with simple bell rings and radio noises. The film also features standout performances from Brian Cox and Olwen Kelly. And upon closer analysis of the film, Autopsy uses the critical horror film “moves” remarkably and even with an original spin on it.
What a shame that my sister would not choose to watch this movie. Then again, if she did, then she would not listen to a bell ring the same way again.
“The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016).” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 1 Feb. 2017. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3289956/>
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Clute, John. “The Darkening Garden: Aftermath”. Weird Fiction Review. 7 Nov. 2012. Accessed 1 February 2017. <http://weirdfictionreview.com/2012/11/aftermath/>
Clute, John. “The Darkening Garden: Revel”. Weird Fiction Review. 4 Nov. 2012. Accessed 1 February 2017. <http://weirdfictionreview.com/2012/11/revel/>
Clute, John. “The Darkening Garden: Thickening”. Weird Fiction Review. 2 Nov. 2012. Accessed 1 February 2017. <http://weirdfictionreview.com/2012/11/thickening/>
Clute, John. “The Darkening Garden: Sighting”. Weird Fiction Review. 31 Oct. 2012. Accessed 1 February 2017. <http://weirdfictionreview.com/2012/10/sighting/>
Collis, Clark. “Autopsy of Jane Doe: How an actress played dead for horror film.” Entertainment Weekly, 27 Sept. 2016. Accessed 1 February 2017. <http://ew.com/article/2016/09/27/autopsy-jane-doe/>
“Emile Hirsch.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 01 Feb. 2017. <http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0386472/?ref_=tt_cl_t1>
Sleight, Graham. “Storying Genres.” Vector Magazine, n.d. Accessed 1 February 2017. <http://www.bsfa.co.uk/www.vectormagazine.co.uk/article.asp%3FarticleID=48.html>