DISCLAIMER: The following essays contain spoilers!
Tropaion. 2021. Directed & Written by Kjersti Helen Rasmussen.
Starring Téa Grønner Joner, Harald O. Nødtvedt, Gine Therese Grønner, & Sofian Emile Mathisen Eidesund.
Handmade Films in Norwegian Woods
Not Rated / 11 minutes
Horror / Science Fiction
★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
Out of all the shorts I watched during Fantasia, and I only saw a small portion, Tropaion was my least favourite. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. I always try to look past most of the things in a film and go straight for the themes being addressed, so that even when I’m not in love with a film I still might latch onto something it did thematically enough to write about it; such is the case with Tropaion.
The story takes us into a kind of post-apocalyptic landscape, where we see a strange little village. Electronics are like buried treasures, no longer working but infinitely interesting to this generation. In the village, people stand still and silent, staring at a particular house. A young woman moves past them and goes inside, where members of her family live. Downstairs is a little boy. The young woman gives him an old iPhone, showing him what it was once used for, but they’re interrupted when the people outside burst in, taking the boy away and locking the girl inside. She eventually escapes and runs to a field where the townsfolk have tied the boy to a post. She tries to free the boy but he’s chained and locked in place. Instead, she runs defiantly into the nearby forest where a loud, unnerving sound cries out, then the sound’s gone. Later we see the post half tipped over. The boy’s gone, too.
Kjersti Helen Rasmussen’s film is interesting to me, it’s just a little too vague. I’m a fan of symbolism and showing versus telling when it comes to writing in fiction. Yet there’s not enough concrete information in the short and, simultaneously, not enough imagery, either. The critical reading I’m trying to locate here hinges on a big piece of symbolism Rasmussen uses, visually and in the title of the film itself. A tropaion is a Greek and Roman monument raised on the battlefield by the victors, a stake on which prisoners of war, living or dead, were strung up as a tribute to the gods; it’s obvious why they’re putting the boy out there. Deeper than that, the young woman and the boy are the only two people in the village under the age of forty or so, everyone else appears older. This is a profound statement about most societies around the globe, looking at how older generations all too often sacrifice the younger, in war and through the way they’ve created inequalities in society. On top of that, whatever god-like thing is out there in this strange world, and the fact the village are willing to make sacrifices to it, works as commentary on the persistence of faith. This theme is the most evident, and most important, in Tropaion. Especially when we look at the post-apocalyptic setting of the short, taking place in a time when an iPhone is akin to an ancient relic. That image of the iPhone, and the young woman putting it to her ear to show the boy its utilitarian purpose, connects the girl to a scientific world, dividing her from the rest of the village who’ve succumbed to a murderous faith. Maybe none of this reading works with the way the film ends. What I’m sure of is, while Tropaion might not have enough meat on its bones—and that’s only one critic’s opinion—it has a lot of thematic work going on for an eleven-minute short. The fact this film made me think about it for a couple days is enough for me to admit it’s a powerful little piece of work.
The Relic. 2021. Directed & Written by J.M. Logan.
Starring Jesse Einstein, Stephanie Einstein, Megan Le, Andrew Oliveri, & Johnny Wactor.
Not Rated / 14 minutes
★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
The term cosmic horror gets thrown around a lot these days, especially when there are tentacles involved. The Relic is, without a doubt, ultra cosmic horror. The short opens by immediately connecting to H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon and the fictional Abdul Alhazred, as well as Nyarlathotep, a horrific deity in Lovecraft’s greater mythos. The story’s setup comes on quick with a bunch of adventurers in a snowy mountain location at a remote outpost in Nepal. They’ve got a naked, bloody, freezing man with them, trying to keep him alive. They’ve also got an artefact with them that’s “900 years old.” One of the group members believes they never should’ve taken the artefact, warning of something coming after them; the others don’t believe in a “fairy tale monster.” The situation only gets worse when another member of their group, previously lost, returns to the outpost in awful shape, just like the naked man. Suddenly the artefact’s legend seems less a product of legend and myth, more like a living, breathing entity that’s come to destroy life across the universe.
Although I find stories connected to Lovecraft slightly tiresome these days, given all we know about his undeniably vitriolic xenophobia and full-blown racism, The Relic doesn’t spend much of its fourteen minutes concerned with Lovecraft and chooses just to tell a scary little story of its own. There’s a terrifying, isolated atmosphere right from the beginning, bringing to mind The Thing. The Carpenter-like vibe of isolation continues when the short dives into awesome, yucky effects work that harks back to The Thing‘s various nasty transformations. The Relic is wonderfully gnarly, for the horror effects alone. Added to all the visual horror, the film involves one of my favourite themes: white people fucking around and finding out. The adventurers look to be largely white, and they’re in the depths of Nepal among a culture not their own. Only one of them keeps cautioning against taking an ancient artefact from its home, which doesn’t convince either of his friends. In the end, a horrific, disgusting entity emerges to ensure these adventuring dummies realise the myths are true, as a green thing in the sky erupts high above the Earth. The Relic is short, strong cosmic horror that’s been done before but done really damn well, leaning into the slimy existential despair of it all and producing unforgettable imagery.