Cinepocalypse 2017: Hagazussa: A Heathen's Curse (2017 - dir. Lukas Feigelfeld)
Review by Patrick Ripoll ("Tracks of the Damned")
At some point during an uninterrupted 3 minute shot of a black snake slowly crawling across someone's neck and face, your mind might start to wander. This is fine. Hagazussa: A Heathen's Curse is a meditative film. It's been compared to last year's critical indie-horror darling The Witch, and they share some common ground. They're both deliberately paced period films in pastoral settings (Hagasuzza trades in The Witch's New England countryside for the stunning vistas of the Austrian Alps) dealing with the conflict between strict religious dogma and a chaotic uncultivated Other Force that may or may not be witchcraft. However, no matter what grumbling you might have witnessed from multiplex audiences about The Witch being too slow and obtuse, it was still a traditional horror movie. It was still interested in crafted scenes of suspense and terror to scare it's audiences. Hagazussa, on the other hand, is not quite a horror film. It's horror adjacent, horror inspired, a chili mixed with horror ingredients, slow simmered with Tarkovsky, much more subdued and hypnotic than any A24 release could hope to be.
It begins with a promising enough horror premise. Albrun is a little girl living with her mother in the middle ages in a cabin isolated from the rest of the community. A night visit from the locals (dressed in frightening moth-like garb) reveals that the two are thought of as heathens and witches. Shortly after, Albrun's mother begins acting erratically, clearly ill. Is this little girl's mother actually a witch or just crazy? The world of Hagazussa is full of existential dread, with implied danger always just out of frame: it's a perfect set-up for a classic horror tale of a little girl stuck in a frightening situation out of her control.
But Hagazussa isn't quite a horror film and it isn't long before there's a jump in time and we're following Albrun as a full-grown adult (played with cold intensity by Aleksandra Cwen) with a child of her own (the father is unknown), stuck in the same position as her mother. The film then spins out it's own particular slow witch drone, the atmosphere thick and suffocating, the events slowly building in nightmarish lunacy. Is Albrun a witch or is she losing her mind with loneliness? She's too opaque a character for the question to truly be teased out, and we never see enough of the community persecuting her for any meaningful context. This limits the allegorical reach of such a story, but for the right kind of audience member this won't matter. There's a lot of beautiful, haunting and shocking moments as the film unfolds it's slow-cinema-black-metal-album-cover-intentions and, even if it can only be appreciated on a surface level, that will be enough to put many under it's dark trance. Filmgoers who walked out of The Witch complaining about it's subtlety, on the other hand, may want to look elsewhere.
Hagazussa: A Heathen's Curse plays at the Music Box Theater Saturday, Nov. 4th at 1:45 PM as part of the Cinepocalypse Genre Film Festival.