Coming off 2018– a highly sociopolitical year that contained multiple depictions of witches, femininity, and black magic within horror through the likes of Suspiria, Pyewacket, and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina– Lukas Feigelfeld’s debut feature film Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse, which has been circulating the festivals since fall 2017, will finally be available to audiences this month. And although a slightly different take on witches than we’ve been seeing as of late, Hagazussa is arguably the most subtly gut-wrenching.
Set within the 15th century amongst the backdrop of the Austrian Alps, Hagazussa is broken down into four acts: “Shadows,” “Horn,” “Blood,” and “Fire.” The film tells the narrative of a young girl named Albrun (Celina Peter) and her mother Martha (Claudia Martini), who live solitarily in their secluded cabin. The mother and daughter are ostracized by the other townsfolk, who accuse them of witchcraft and Pagan practices– going so far as to actually come to their home one night with lighted torches. After a deeply unsettling sequence involving young Albrun and her mother, Martha comes down with an illness and dies, leaving Albrun alone and traumatized. The film then jumps forward in time to an adult Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen) with her own baby girl, living alone and ostracized, in the same way that her and her mother once did. Like her mother, Albrun too, is bullied by both men and (despicably) other women, who throw rocks at her and call her an “ugly witch” as she quietly minds her time. After experiencing a malicious betrayal from a neighbor, Albrun begins to succumb to the wickedness and perversions that she has always been accused of, and gradually slips into uncontrollable madness.
With the film’s limited dialogue, the performers succeed at the task of relying primarily on poignant facial movements and subtle expressions of confusion and pain. Claudia Martini as Albrun’s mother is fearless– her horrifying makeup, sinister smiles, and harrowing screams stick with you, even though she is only used within the first 15-20 minutes. Aleksandra Cwen’s performance as adult Albrun is so understatedly raw that it’s devastating. She trembles in fear; she wallows in agony; she frighteningly bulges her eyes as she looks down at her baby during the film’s climax. As she descends into hysteria, Cwen releases one solid, guttural scream after spending most of the duration of the film in her character’s silence. She bravely carries the film.
The visual aesthetic is a character within itself, as Feigelfeld comes from a background of photography. With the help of cinematographer Mariel Baqueiro, Hagazussa is breathtaking, with its gray hues and wide shots of the Alps and dreamy, countryside openness. From the film’s opening of dreary, white snow with small footprints, to its foreboding, slow-motion trodding of a horse, you will never be able to take your eyes off the screen. The lingering imagery of an opened-eye corpse with a snake slithering over it will haunt you long after it cuts away. Artistically-shot pools of bloody water after a devastating death are akin to a watercolor painting. The film’s final moment encapsulates what we just witnessed perfectly: a wide shot of a burning fire against a murky, gray-blue sky and snow-covered mountains– the destructive aftermath of an outwardly peaceful climate that will never be the same. More specifically, the representation of an outwardly quiet lead character that will never be the same. Additionally, a set piece of a catacomb church filled with skulls, designed by Dana Dumann, is a stunning stand-out.
Feigelfeld opts for an ominous, atmospheric slow burn rather than plot-heavy over-stuffedness. Pacing may be too slow for some, but even the most impatient of viewers will feel anxious, awaiting for something terrible to happen at every turn. The film elicits a coldness throughout its entire 102-minutes, taking its time by lingering on disturbing images, paired with MMMD’s ominous, gothic score that eventually includes bellowing vocals that are reminiscent of the bleakest church choir you could ever imagine.
Similar to other metaphorical witch stories, Hagazussa embodies the horrors of being a woman. Albrun is a victim of misogyny from men and cruelty from fellow women. In one particular sequence, Albrun wakes up alone, surrounded by fog, which mirrors the confusion of being drugged and/or date raped. She pleasures herself as a means to cope with her repressed sexuality– in fact, like The Witch, goats are also prevalent in this film, but this time, she is using them as a means for temptation. A reoccurring snake also slithers its way through crucial scenes– another indication of temptation and sexuality– further implicating her so-called sins as a woman who craves physical pleasure. How dare she.
As writer/director Feigelfeld explained to me, the comparisons to Robert Eggers’s 2016 period film The Witch are purely coincidental– as Feigelfeld had not even seen Eggers’s film until after Hagazussa was completed— which is fascinating and extremely telling of our current climate where women’s sexual and reproductive rights are scrutinized daily. More often than ever before, modern women are taking control of the witch metaphor by removing its demonized implications and turning it into a symbol of empowerment– it just appears that both Feigelfeld and Eggers saw this phenomenon coming. Like The Witch‘s Thomasin, Albrun also takes back her power that was stripped from her as she turns to the dark arts, however, the horrific ways in which she chooses to do so leave more of a bleaker ending than Eggers’s film, which will not only haunt you, but will also emote sadness and empathy, as it comes full circle from the film’s beginning.
For fans of arthouse-inspired horror such as The Blackcoat’s Daughter, Let the Right One In, Hereditary, and the aforementioned The Witch, you can add the chilling gem that is Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse to the list of modern, arthouse/horror-drama classics.
Bloody Disgusting and Doppelgänger Releasing presents Hagazussa to limited theaters starting April 19, as well as VOD, Blu-ray, and digital release on April 23.
Watch the trailer here. ~