1880, Minnesota: the plains of the frontier are a wide-open expanse filled with possibility. When three Norwegian sisters settle into their remote home, there seems to be nobody around for miles… and perhaps that’s exactly the problem.
Who Goes There?, from the Norwegian-born British filmmaker Astrid Thorvaldsen, was shortlisted for the 2020 Student BAFTAs, and is a mini-masterclass of creating chilling tension and dread in a stark setting. We begin in near-darkness, listening to a man’s gasps of fear in front of a flickering fire; when we jump to the bright sunlight of the Minnesota plains, we encounter the stark figures of three Norwegian sisters. Ingrid (Nina Yndis), the oldest, is plainly dressed and sharp-tongued, while Ada (Rikke Haughem), the youngest, is ailing and lying in what seems to be her deathbed; middle sister Liv (Siri Meland) is forever unsure where to place herself between the two.
Despite all the space and the scenery outdoors, the frontier is a terrifying place of uncertainty — but so is the sisters’ dwelling, a horribly claustrophobic place where internal illnesses and personal demons seem to run rampant. There barely seems enough room to contain all the tension and turmoil, but then a strange man (Liam McMahon) appears on the horizon — and as Ingrid calls out “Hey, who goes there?” to this man, who assures them he is a doctor who can cure Ada, we are not quite sure who or what this apparition may be.
We get few clear answers and little conversation, but the unsaid and unseen is what gives this short film its hefty weight. This is a story about loss and the fear of loss, what god giveth and what god taketh away. Ingrid is forced to maintain a strong facade even as the earth shakes beneath her feet, and tensely asks the doctor, perhaps the only chance for salvation, to examine their ailing sister; meanwhile, Liv, deeply religious, tearfully confesses she did not pray for her sister to get better, but rather that she would be taken by death.
The thick atmosphere of eeriness is supported by the shrieking score by Adam Speck, and the wide-open plains offer little escape from the black void of the cabin that seems to cause everything to fester and ferment. The sepia-twinged color grading gives the film an appropriately vintage feel, and Graham Boonzaaier’s cinematography captures the stark beauty of the brightly sunlit days on the plain as well as the haunting flickers of the shadows. Who Goes There? frames the sisters as quasi-religious icons in some of its striking shots, as they seem to search for divine signs. Each feel like a martyr, utterly alone in this place.
While the titular “who goes there?” is uttered by Ingrid to the stranger, it could easily be said by any of the sisters to one another, as each seems to wander like a lonely ghost through the house, as afraid of losing one another as they are of losing themselves. Who Goes There? is a call to see past the hazy horizon and know what comes after death arrives at the door — only to be met with no reply.