Experimental Reviews

Miasma (2022) – 4.5 stars

Director: Andreas Aicka Thomsen

Writer: Andreas Aicka Thomsen

Cast: Astrid Haugesen, Jonas Erboe

Running time: 11mins

In our forgotten – but not so-distant – medical past, a miasma was believed to be a poisonous mist made up of particles from decomposing material, which was often blamed for the diseases our ancestors could not completely understand. Since the advent of modern microbiology, that archaic belief has (for now) faded away – but the term lingers, now used to describe an oppressive or unpleasant atmosphere, enveloping a particular area or subject.

As such, there could not be a better title for writer-director Andreas Aicka Thomsen’s foreboding experimental short. A masterclass in the construction of suspense, Miasma is dripping in ancient Nordic terror – its story framed by the Scandinavian mountains which loom from a blanket of impenetrable fog; and underscored by a seething double-bass, accompanied by haunting vocals that occasionally crescendo to fearful shrieks.

In his cinematography, and in his choice of soundtrack, Thomsen has done everything he can to tell us wordlessly that there is a force at play here which we cannot see, or understand. There’s something in the air…

Amid the towering mountains and the writhing score, Thomsen then places two nameless figures. Both dressed in orange-red suits, actors Astrid Haugesen and Jonas Erboe roam the icy woodlands which flank the Scandes. Their strange choice of snow-gear suggests they were not planning on heading into the freezing depths of the mountains – perhaps they were based in some remote scientific outpost – but something has lured them out here. As they stagger through the wilderness, it becomes increasingly clear they are answering some inescapable call. Quite At the Mountains of Madness.

As Haugesen gazes breathlessly into the boughs of the surrounding evergreens, we can see a mysterious blue pattern painted onto her face. Erboe has similar inscriptions adorning his brow, though his glowering comes across as overtly more sinister. Has he given in to some timeless cosmic force that still calls the mountains home? Is she still somewhat resistant to whatever dark demands it is making of them both?

Perhaps, as with a great deal of experimental cinema, the only meaning here is in the mind of the viewer and I have been reading too much Lovecraft? However, the film’s propensity for delivering deliberate drawn-out shocks suggests otherwise to me – as does its conclusion.

In terms of the jumps, one moment in particular stands out as reminiscent of Jonathan Miller’s Whistle and I will Come to You – as a long shot holds on Haugesen running down a bleak and endless path, before taking us by surprise with a sudden halt. Meanwhile, the story’s ending also alludes to the facing of some greater malevolent force. A fire-side showdown eventually delivers a delightfully unnerving, ambiguous, conclusion that puts doubt on many of the assumptions built up around our two characters previously – in the style of Alex Garland’s Annihilation.

For all this, however, it should be noted that Miasma does still have room for some improvement. Because it seems to have more of a ‘conventional’ narrative than most experimental films, it is caught in no-man’s-land during its mid-section. While most movies need to maintain your attention consistently throughout their run-time, avant-garde cinema has a tendency to encourage people’s minds to wander. While guided meditation like that does have its place in Miasma, priming you to use your mind to fill in the blanks, it does lull you into a little too much of a wandering state around the four-minute mark – and being so perilously close to the film’s climax, there is a possibility that you might blink and miss some of the most intense and important moments in that final scene.

Meanwhile, after everything is said and done, that pet peeve of mine resurfaces once more: the film does not adequately spell out roles in the credits. In particular, something so important to the creation of the film’s atmosphere is its music – the score gives peak Jóhann Jóhannsson, at his gloomy, multi-layered, best – and its creator deserves noting for that; whoever they are.

These are extremely minor notes, however. As a junkie for cosmic horror, and experimental cinema, Miasma hits a sweet spot for me that I never expected to be met. In years to come it will without doubt remain one of my favourite films I encountered with Indy Film Library. It crafts subtle, wordless, dread with unflinching patience – and I pray, to whatever unholy force resides in those mountains, that Miasma’s creator keeps our little website in mind for his future releases.

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