It is a rare feat to be able to imbue a horror short with the kind of dread and tension that Astrid Thorvaldsen manages in her demonic western tale, Who Goes There? In just twenty-two short minutes, Thorvaldsen manages to weave a web of icy cold horror that wraps itself around the soul of the viewer and chokes the breath from them with the expert hand of a seasoned professional.
Set in an isolated cabin in the middle of a picturesque Minnesota prairie in 1880, Who Goes There? is the story of three Norwegian sisters Ingrid (Nina Yndis), Liv (Siri Meland), and the sickly Ada (Rikké Haughem) trying to survive in the face of disease on their land which has already claimed the parents. When a stranger arrives on their land asking for help and professing to be a doctor, Ingrid must decide whether she can trust him to help her deathly ill sister before it is too late.
Who Goes There? is a short that has atmosphere in spades. A pre-credit campfire scene of something shifting and hunting in the dark works as an effective and eerie start to set the mood before the story-proper begins in earnest.
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Cinematographer Graham Boonzaaier’s captures wide shots of the gorgeous setting, helping to really hammer home the precariously isolated nature of the sisters; evocative of Jane Campion’s Oscar winning film The Power of the Dog, the prairie becomes stunning canvas on which to tell a story. The empty, vast grasslands have an ancient beauty that seem to tap into something old and knowing; the sky at dusk is beautifully captured as the blues give way to a cloudy ocean of muddied blood, as ominous as the crimson stains on Ada’s pillow.
Adam Speck’s unobtrusive score helps to maintain the tension as the creeping horror begins to overtake the story, but the film is wise enough to know when the absence of sound has much more of an impact.
Thorvaldsen uses the period setting to lean into the often-tragic mystique of early settlers’ life in America, with heartbreak and hardship worn across the sisters faces long before the mysterious traveller arrives on their lands. Nina Ynndis as the hardened, determined older sister is terrific and in her short screen time leaves an indelible impression on the audience. Siri Meland’s Liv clings to religion to cope with the hardships of her life, refusing to speak in English (“The devil’s tongue…”) as she has watched illness strip her parents from her, and now threatens to take her sister Ada.
When the horror of life on the frontier gives way to a darker, supernatural threat, Who Goes There? becomes a genuinely unsettling descent into blackest horror and lingering anguish that taps into the same sort of gleeful cruelty and darkness that Bryan Bertino’s terrifying The Dark and the Wicked did back in 2020. As the doctor (Liam McMahon) insists on being alone with Ada in order to cure her, a sickness of the soul takes place of her earthly malady and provides the film with a wonderfully subtle slice of terror that will leave the audience holding their breath.
Astrid Thorvaldsen has crafted a terrific a truly special film that takes full advantage of every second of its run time. Strong performances and a simple premise executed with perfection in a stunning landscape ensure that Who Goes There? will be a short that lives long in the darkness of your nightmares.
Who Goes There? is now available to watch on Alter’s YouTube channel.
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