GORE IN THE STORE
HAGAZUSSA: A HEATHEN’S CURSE *****
Directed by Lukas Feigelfeld.
Starring Aleksandra Cwen, Celina Peter, Claudia Martini, Haymon Maria Buttinger, Tanja Petrovsky.
Horror/Drama, Austria/Germany, 102 mins, cert 18.
Released in the UK on Limited Edition Blu-ray by Arrow video on 11th May 2020.
It is quite ironic that in these supposedly enlightened times, when the horror genre is looking forward beyond the early 21st century trends of CGI zombies, torture porn and found footage in order to evolve, that genre filmmakers have been looking backwards for inspiration. Robert Eggers’s 2015 film THE WITCH divided audiences between those looking for instant horror jump scares and those more attuned to atmosphere and slow-burning storytelling, and has become one the defining titles in the re-emergence of folk horror.
Austrian director Lukas Feigelfeld’s debut feature film HAGAZUSSA: A HEATHEN’S CURSE is a folk horror movie very much in the same vein as THE WITCH on the surface but whereas Robert Eggers’s movie had a strong narrative with a setup, a plot and a strong ending, HAGAZUSSA goes off in a different direction, presenting the psychological breakdown of a young woman in 15th century Europe as a snail-paced mood piece with leanings towards psychedelia, paranoia and the human condition rather than the supernatural.
The subject of the film is Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen), a young woman who lives in a hut on the outskirts of a mountain community with her baby daughter. Albrun is outcast as she is considered to be a witch, as was her mother before her, and the first chapter of the film shows how the younger Albrun (played here by Celina Peter) lived quietly with her mother (Claudia Martini), going out every day and gathering wood, generally not bothering anybody but still managing to upset the locals just by their existence in a scene that highlights how isolated and hated this family is.
As Albrun’s mother’s health deteriorates the local clergy come to help nurse her and point out that the cancerous lumps under her arms are the mark of the devil, leaving young Albrun to care for her mother as disease and madness take over, turning her mother into a witch-like crone, bent out of shape and in constant pain.
This first chapter of the film is the strongest, the imagery and story – or what there is of it – establishing the tone and direction that the rest of the film will take, with slight misdirection from Lukas Feigelfeld playing on the superstitions of the locals along with our modern experiences informing what we are seeing. From then on we are with Albrun as she lives her life in quiet exclusion, her only contact with other people being a visit to the local priest and a friendship with a local woman called Swinda (Tanja Petrovsky), although these aren’t always friendly encounters.
By the end of the film we are in no doubt as to whether Albrun is a witch thanks to some understated but no less stark imagery that, if it were in a faster-paced, more action-filled romp then it would no doubt cause a stir but here it feels as natural as Albrun’s jaunts in the forest, the rituals she performs as much a backdrop of her existence than the snowy mountains she lives in, and despite her actions we sympathise as her tragic life has been written this way since day one.
When it comes down to it, HAGAZUSSA: A HEATHEN’S CURSE is a film you’re either going to love or hate and if you go into it expecting a bloodbath or shocks and suspense then it probably isn’t going to resonate with you, especially given the lack of a proper narrative. The photography is gorgeous, with nearly every shot a potential Norwegian black metal album cover, and the way that the filmmakers make the forest seem to come alive around Albrun by the way they frame her amongst the trees only adds to the doom-laden atmosphere brought on by the static visuals. The limited edition set also contains with the soundtrack CD courtesy of Greek dark ambient band MMMD, which is just as minimalist as the script, and captures the hypnotic ambience of the film in a series of pulsing bass and string rhythms that are just as brooding and haunting when played separately from the film. With an audio commentary from author and critic Kat Ellinger, select scene commentary by director Lukas Feigelfeld, a deleted scene and two shorts films by Feigelfeld, as well as a poster, collector’s booklet and slipcase, HAGAZUSSA is a fairly complete package of a film that won’t float everyone’s boat but does suggest that Lukas Feigelfeld has a talent for capturing the beauty in madness – or the madness in beauty, depending on your viewpoint – and if THE WITCH turned you on to the foggy atmospherics of folk horror then this film takes that magnetic oppression one step further and fully embraces the darkness.