You won’t recognize the name of Austrian filmmaker Lukas Feigelfeld, but mark my words, commit it to memory. His beguiling debut Hagazussa is drawn from a witch’s brew of old-world social isolation, pagan folklore whispered throughout Feigelfeld’s childhood, and horror in a time when civilization was rooted in blind ritualistic or religious faith. These practices may be archaic, but cinematic lenses crave experiences of the past, present, and future. Feigelfeld’s confidence in lingering shot selections exposes Mother Nature for all her imposition, which calls back to a rural period aesthetic intertwined with evil fantasies.
On a remote plot of land lives Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen), who tends to goats and raises her child away from gawking locals. Albrun’s mother, rest her soul, had passed some time ago ago during a bedridden bout of “sickness.” Mutter (Claudia Martini) was unwell, covered in lesions, but also starting to show signs of abnormal behavior. Now, years later, Albrun is thought to be of impure soul given the unknown and unexplained events of her past. Not the life she asked for, but one that drives her into a paranoid state of fear nonetheless.
Hagazussa will be released in a limited capacity on April 19th, but if you’re lucky enough to find a showing at a theater near you, get your slow-burn horror on! Feigelfeld’s unwavering direction assures Hagazussa one of 2019’s can’t-miss horror movies.
1. Living In The Old World Was Scary Enough
For a critic who cornerstones his horror tastes on midnighter exploitation and macabre comedies, I’m starting to find that culturally-driven witch hunts might be my jam? There aren’t a slew of recent examples, but everything I appreciated about Robert Eggers’ The Witch translates into equal adoration of Feigelfeld’s Hagazussa. Puritanical village isolation of 15th century Europe is a horror story in its own right. Supernatural curses and cloven satanic imagery distort an already hazy reality as medieval colonies adapt hivemind thinking due to a lack of outside influence. Who needs monsters when you’ll fear anything considered “different” by virtue of blasphemy?
German folklore oozes from production design that’s impoverished and walled inside woodland seclusion. Insect chirps score quiet nights, and crunchy footsteps through iced-over snowfall provide ambient noise but also stoke paranoia. Albrun faces heightened sensations of fear as she must care for her child, and any threats need to be acted on proactively versus reactively. It’s an aesthetic creepiness that doesn’t always benefit filmmakers, but as with Emma Tammi’s The Wind, Feigelfeld turns daily life into an unpopulated test of solitary wits. It’s all accented here by religious temples lined with human skulls and townsfolk who live to punish heathenistic “sinners,” along with punctuative sound design such as the cracking of stiff joints as Mutter twists her neck while sitting atop her bed (read: extremely unsettling).
2. Existence Of The Supernatural Is All In Our Mind… Or Is It?
When you recall and read about Salem’s witch trials, the question of just cause and being able to prove a woman’s dark sorcery becomes the scariest distortion of fact. Judges were executing based on fear alone (watch ParaNorman), and that same kind of fight against sacrilegious hedonism is what defines Hagazussa. Feigelfeld imparts the curiosities and boogeymen of his childhood by keeping Albrun’s arc shrouded in cursed ambiguity, leaving our perceptions in a state of undecided flux over true satanic influences or self-inflicted madness. Can an emotionally stunted woman retain her sanity when shunned by newfound “friend” Swinda (Tanja Petrovsky), or convicted of heresy by a local priest, or treated as a living stigma?
On the other hand, Feigelfeld does everything in his power to make us believe something wicked this way comes. Albrun’s relationship with her black horned goat – a symbolic representation of Lucifer’s grasp – only becomes odder and more suspect as she lusts for the animal’s milk. When she wanders into the surrounding forest, lost in nature, visions of Mutter and other forces of inhumanity add to the assurance that something is not right. I’ll do no disservice by spoiling the third act, but you better believe Hagazussa takes full advantage of psychological disturbances in a way that staggeringly distorts reality. Maybe townsfolk had every right to question the ancient magic Albrun may or may not have been exploring given fears of nature-based spirits of the woods – then again, maybe not.
3. Horror Can Be Beautiful
Cinematographer Mariel Baqueiro does so much with so little in Hagazussa. Gloomy earth tones represent wintry mountain landscapes and dense forest pathways, and as previously mentioned, the camera moves at a methodically sluggish pace. Feigelfeld bubbles a cauldron of dread over the lowest of flames, but Baqueiro frames every shot with such artistic integrity that pacing never drags its feet. Horror movies can be beautiful, and this is one that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen thanks to the rich attention infused into each and every doomed picturesque view.
There are images seared into my head days after watching Hagazussa. Shots such as Albrun standing in front of a cave’s blackened entrance, stricken paralyzed by the complete silence around her (and memories of her mother). Albrun wading deeper into a pond’s murky waters between twisted tree branches. As body collectors drag corpses to be burned, Albrun follows while the camera fixates behind her falling in line with the rotting procession. All these moments live so vividly on screen despite action dialed to the lowest speed, but don’t fret – psychosis eventually takes hold of both Albrun and Baqueiro’s worldview. Such is the intoxicating trance Hagazussa uses to keep viewers engaged in a damned folktale-driven nightmare with title cards that mark each chapter (e.g., “Horn”), breathtaking to behold and devastating to watch unfold.