Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Post Mortem

Olwen Catherine Kelly The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)

...But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all...

--William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1

In Supernatural Horror in Literature, his landmark essay on the subject of fear in horror fiction, H. P. Lovecraft opined: "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." I think this says more about Lovecraft than it does about the nature of fear in horror fiction, though. Lovecraft was scared of his own shadow, after all. My own feeling is that the root of fear in almost all things--especially in the horror story--is ultimately a fear of death. That undiscovered country of Shakespeare and the neurotic obsession of the Gothic romantics. Lovecraft is right in one respect, though: death is a great unknown, and not just because no one yet has returned from its Plutonian shore to offer a report on the lay of the land. The rituals of death are often a mystery, too, hidden away from most people in the Western tradition. As a people, we have become disconnected from death and death rituals to a point where the cerements of the grave provide the horror story and the horror film with their most constant companion. There are also taboos about the dignity of death. One of the most persistent themes in horror is the "bad death," in which the body is violated by death and its aftermath, whether it's from being mangled in a threshing machine or mutating into a fly creature. The integrity of the body is the fundamental state of an untroubled universe; its violation is an affront to the human sense of order in the world. Maybe this is why there is a persistent sub-genre of horror stories about autopsies and morticians.* All of these things percolate through André Øvredal's second film, The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016), which is among the most effective horror movies of the current period.

The story is right there in the title. Jane Doe has been discovered under mysterious circumstances at the site of a mass killing, where the victims seem to have been trying to escape from...something. Jane Doe, however, is unmarred. She is found half buried in the basement, but seems not to have suffered from the ravages of burial or of being dead. This mysterious perfection is the first thing noted by Tommy and Austin Tilden, the coroners tasked with determining Jane Doe's cause of death. From the start, her body is mysterious. She has no bruising from the settling of blood, no rigor mortis, no decomposition of any kind. They note, only, that the cast over her eyes suggests that she has been dead for longer than the state of her body would ordinarily indicate. Their first discovery is that her ankles and wrists have been broken, consistent with a serial killer in the area some time in the past. When they open her up, things just get stranger. Her organs are scarred, and her lungs seem to have been burned, but there is no obvious way that these things could have been inflicted upon her. Stranger by far is the cloth they find inside her that seems to have ritualistic symbols on it, symbols that they find on the inside surface of her skin. Meanwhile, a hurricane rages outside, and Tommy and Austin find themselves trapped with Jane, who never moves. But something else does. They both begin to notice strange movements around the morgue, and they glimpse figures in reflections. They begin to understand that the impossible condition of Jane's corpse isn't the only impossible thing with which they must contend...

Emile Hirsch, Olwen Catherine Kelly, Michael McElhatton, and Brian Cox in The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)

The structure of this film is classically Gothic. It's a procedural, in which worse and worse things are revealed about both the past and the present. In another context--in a CSI-style cop show, for instance, Tommy and Austin would be detectives, and their rational examination of the facts would unravel all mysteries and tidy them up in an end of film exegesis all neat and proper. The Gothic is grandmother of the mystery story as well as the horror story, after all. Since this is a horror movie, though, the procedural fails to eliminate the impossible. Indeed, the impossible keeps piling up. The advantage of its structure is that it gives its fantastic elements a veneer of authenticity. It helps the audience suspend its disbelief. It also gives its characters an excuse--indeed, a job--to contemplate the film's mysteries in a way that reveals them to the audience and moves the plot, but which complicates the dire situation in which our heroes find themselves. This is a psychoanalytic structure that's common to many of the best Gothic stories and the filmmakers make full use of it here. It's a beautifully conceived film.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe is precise in the way it violates death taboos. It starts with a corpse that would be the envy of Poe or the Romantic poets, one uncorrupted by death and with the appearance smooth alabaster under the harsh lights of the the coroner's slab. Death itself hasn't violated the corpse, but the process of autopsy obviously will. Even the first hints of her strangeness--her broken wrists and ankles--aren't visible except in the audience's mind as the movie tells us about them. Once our heroes cut her open, the violations becomes explicit and the film becomes particularly gruesome.  It is to the film's credit that it doesn't just violate death taboos for effect, or examine death customs in a vacuum. It relates death customs to the plot and it relates the horror of a bad death to its characters.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)

In the first case, it makes use of things like the crematory and the practice of belling the ankles of corpses as both significant objects unto themselves and as objects that turn specific plot points. Really, when Tommy describes the function of the bell, who doesn't immediately dread the moment when that bell will ring? In the second case, both Tommy and Austin are mourning. Their profession gives them a perspective on the death of Tommy's wife, but the wound has only barely scabbed over and the autopsy of Jane Doe claws it open. Tommy and Austin are unusual among father/son pairs in stories like this in so far as the death of Tommy's wife/Austin's mom hasn't driven them apart. Its refreshing to see that these two characters genuinely like each other. Nor are they the cynical coroners, hardened by life among the corpses, that usually populate horror movies. To an extent, they act as guides through the underworld, unphased by either the culture of death or by death itself. At least, they act that way so long as things are familiar to them. When they fly off the rails, they're as adrift in the horror as the audience. "Whatever the hell happened in here... We are way past possible," Austin tells his dad at one point. This reminds me a bit of that scene in Aliens where Ripley tells Newt that "These people are here to protect you. They're soldiers." To which Newt replies, "It won't make any difference." Tommy and Austin's expertise, their familiarity with death, is almost a liability for the situation in which they find themselves.

Brian Cox in The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)

The film's biggest strength, however, is in its casting. This is a two-handed chamber piece--most of it takes place in a single space--and this puts a strain on films with less than stellar actors. This film, however, has Emile Hirsch and Brian Cox, who are far better actors than the horror genre normally gets. Cox in particular elevates almost every film in which he appears, and he provides Tommy with a hefty dose of gravitas. Having the actors it has enables the filmmakers to use the tropes of the horror film as a means of examining these characters as emotional, thinking people rather than as props to be dismembered by the imperatives of the genre. One of the strengths of genre is the ability to test characters in ways that elude more naturalistic modes of filmmaking and this film understands this implicitly. Moreover, when things ultimately veer into full-bore horror, the audience has a connection to the characters that makes the horror beats hurt just a bit more.

Emile Hisch, Olwen Catherine Kelly, and Brian Cox in The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)

The film's main flaw is role of Emma, Austin's girlfriend. Ophelia Lovibond is a good enough actor in her own right to hold her own against Cox and Hirsch, but the film doesn't let her. The character is squandered by the film, and Lovibond with her. The same could be said of Michael McElhatton as Sheriff Burke, whose scenes consist of standing around crime scenes wondering what the hell happened. The same is not true, however, of Olwen Catherine Kelly. She plays the corpse. The filmmakers have wisely chosen to use a real person as the corpse rather than a prosthetic dummy, which voids the usual risk of appearing "fake" to a sophisticated horror audience. Jane Doe is a palpable presence in the film, in part because of her creepy stillness, but also because of the fine control Kelly uses to appear dead. This is not a film where the camera has to cut away briefly, as Psycho does in the shower scene, because she is seen to take a breath. There are no visible mistakes here. This is a tricky technical performance that the filmmakers have ably abetted.

Olwen Catherine Kelly in The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)

This film is the whole shebang: A horror movie that plumbs the human condition, that provides gruesome shocks to the viewer, that creates a mounting sense of dread for a receptive audience. It does one more thing, too: It has an apocalyptic vision. The very end of the film suggests the kind of end of days one sees in the descendants of Night of the Living Dead or, more properly, in The Ring. It's subtle about this almost to the point of minimalism, encapsulating the possibility of a widening unstoppable horror in a single shot. For a film that occasionally uses blunt force trauma for its effects, its elegance is often surprising.

This is one of the best horror movies of the decade.

*Apropos of absolutely nothing: my favorite horror story about a mortician is Ray Bradbury's "The Handler," which was memorably adapted for E. C. Comics by "Ghastly" Graham Ingels. In it, a mortician buries the people of his small town in poetically just ways. The town gossips are sewn mouth to ear, for one example, while a he buries a spinster with the hands of an old man to caress her throughout eternity. He gets his comeuppance in the end, of course. I know, right? Heh, heh, heh, as the Crypt Keeper used to say...

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