Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse is a beautifully filmed, claustrophobic period piece filled with enough dread and horror to keep you watching even though it is nearly a silent film and what little dialogue it has is sub-titled. Hagazussa is so well-made that my jaw dropped when I read that this was writer/director Lukas Feigelfeld’s FILM SCHOOL GRADUATION PROJECT! Sorry for the all-caps emotionalism but holy horror movie masterpiece Batman, this was a film school project and it is better than eighty percent of the horror films I’ve seen! Reading a little about the movie, people are claiming it was influenced by the 2015 American film The Witch. Please stop. That movie was shite compared to this. The Witch was a disappointing film that was over-hyped and was one of those movies where all the good parts were packed into the promotional trailer. I will concede that there are some strong “coincidental” similarities in that both films have the theme that isolation (or exclusion) from society breeds paranoia and superstition. And goats. They both have goats. I would say Hagazussa owes more to the 1922 silent Swedish film Haxan, which was a documentary with re-enactments about witchcraft and Satanism that unintentionally became a horror movie.
The movie takes place in the 15th century Alps and is divided into four segments, each having a title. The first segment, “Shadows,” focuses on a young girl named Albrun, played by Celina Peter, and her mother, played by Claudia Martini, who live in a cabin some distance away from the village. Albrun and her mother are labeled as witches and either shunned or treated poorly by the villagers. Are they witches? I don’t know. But there are goat skulls on just about every wall instead of crosses. Albrun’s mother comes down with the plague and she is left alone to nurse her mother and watch her die. As she nears her death, Albrun’s mother beckons her to come into her bed and lay with her, and then comes a disturbing scene I won’t even bother to describe. Suffice it to say, ew! Hagazussa is full of disturbing scenes, some that make you want to believe you aren’t seeing what you are seeing. Throughout this first segment, the winter landscape, gorgeously filmed by cinematographer Mariel Baqueiro, works well with the droning, avant-garde score by MMMD to create a claustrophobic atmosphere full of paranoia and dread. You can FEEL the utter aloneness of Albrun and her mother.
The second segment, “Horn,” fast forwards twenty years to a grown Albrun, played brilliantly by Aleksandra Cwen, who is now a goatherd and mother of a small baby. There is no explanation of who the father is or where he is. “Horn” takes place in the spring and the cinematography captures wide, sweeping views of the Alps and the valleys between them, giving a sense of false hope. A young woman named Swinda, the only person in the village to treat Albrun half way decently, steps in for her when some boys are throwing rocks at her and calling her a witch. Can Albrun come out of her shell and establish a friendship? There’s a hint of something sinister in Swinda that makes one question her motives. Later, Swinda comes to her cabin to tell her the town priest has summoned her. This is the same priest who visited Albrun and her mother and diagnosed her mother with the plague. Best part of this scene is the ossuary, or chapel made completely of human frickin’ bones, where Albrun meets the priest. He gives her some spiel about cleansing the darkness from the righteous and hands her the skull of her mother to take home. Albrun creates a shrine in her cabin with her mother’s skull. It’s so goth!
Hagazussa has THE sexiest scene involving a goat I’ve ever seen! I can’t even describe it without using pornographic terms, but somehow Cwen manages to pull this scene off so well, with help from the camera, which focuses closely on goat teats as they are being milked and makes them seem very phallic. Cwen, being given very little dialogue in the movie, uses her expressive face (especially her eyes) to great effect; particularly during the goat-milking/masturbation scene and, later, a devastating rape scene in which she manages to convey both despair and dissociation without uttering a word.
I hate to say it, but the first two segments of the film are the strongest, while the third and fourth segments go into such surreal territory that I was left with more questions than answers. But perhaps that was writer/director Feigelfeld’s intention to begin with. The third segment, “Blood,” is probably the most difficult to process because of its hallucinatory nature, with long stretches that are dialogue-free. It doesn’t help that the noise rock/meets avant-garde black metal/meets Philip Glass score gets especially grating on the nerves as it tries to assist the increasingly bizarre cinematography in building the tension. Despite being hard on the ears and eyes, both the score and visuals fit this segment because it centers on what happens after Albrun eats what appears to be a magic mushroom.
Segment four, “Fire,” takes the viewer straight to hell with the most disturbing scene in the movie. Feigelfeld had major balls submitting this as his graduation project. I’m not sure he could have done so successfully in an American film school. It took me a while to get what Feigelfeld is doing with the story of Albrun. He is basically taking all the medieval (mis)conceptions about women who were different than what the Church said they should be, thus making them “witches,” combined it with popular European folklore, and brought it to life in this movie. Afraid of people who didn’t fit society’s norms, people created stories of witches who had black cats as familiars, had sex with the devil (and/or goats), made potions out of poisonous plants, and ate babies. But neither Feigelfeld nor Cwen make it easy to get this. Or maybe the visuals in these last two segments are so disturbing your mind doesn’t want to accept what it’s seeing.
The most disturbing question this movie raises isn’t about what we may or may not have seen Albrun do in the film but whether Albrun really was a witch or did she simply become like one because of being treated like one her whole life. The concept that she simply became a person capable of doing evil deeds because society expected her to is a more horrific idea than that there was any supernatural element to her story.
Hagazussa is the epitome of film as fine art form. It doesn’t have to explain itself any more than an MC Escher drawing. For horror fans who like their movies full of action, big scares, and a huge climactic ending… this might not be for you. But for horror fans who like their movies visually stunning, well-acted, and REALLY disturbing… WATCH IT! But not while you’re eating.