The horror genre has always had a fascination with witchcraft. Films like The Craft or the recent The Witch have had great success, but few have taken the tragic, brooding path into the folklore surrounding witchcraft as Hagazussa...
…Take a look at Hagazussa’s IMDB page, and you’ll find the synopsis listed simply as “paranoia and superstition in 15th Century Europe”. That doesn’t tell you much, but that’s largely because Hagazussa is something you have to see to understand. But as best as I can describe it, this grim little horror film from writer/director Lukas Feigelfeld tells the story of Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen), a 15th century mother with a newborn baby, living on her own and struggling to survive in the wilderness, while haunted by the witchcraft inherent in her blood.
Let it be said right away, this is folktale horror at its finest. Hagazussa is split into various chapters, with subtle titles like “Shadows”, “Horn”, and “Blood”, which give an eerie storybook vibe on the level of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Each chapter revolves around a dark moment in Albrun's life, played with a quiet, captivating performance that is as mysterious and enigmatic as those titles. We follow Albrun from the grim period in which she must take care of her dying mother in the middle of nowhere, to motherhood, through the embrace of her “faith”, so to speak. Haunted by the past and confronted by her sinister present, Albrun's story is a fascinating one as we slowly uncover whether or not she is truly a witch, which speaks to Cwen’s outstanding, nearly silent performance.
Hagazussa is a somber film with hardly an ounce of dialogue in it. Albrun does interact with the occasional villager, none of whom she likes, but these instances are brief, and are there only to establish how much of an outsider she is. The real meat of the story is the devastating portrayal of the life of a woman accused of being a witch, living on the outskirts of society and struggling to survive. Well-shot with darkness seeming to creep into every frame, Hagazussa is a deeply personal film that never takes its eyes off of Albrun. Nothing I say can prepare you for how relentlessly uncomfortable this film is, and how fearlessly Cwen acts in her role. Hagazussa caresses all sorts of depravity, such as an odd sexuality towards blood and milk, aka, “liquids of life”, a mommy-daughter bedtime scene that will make you want to rinse your eyes with boiling water, and, well, you get the idea. In dissecting the life of a supposed witch, Feigelfeld finds a way to turn every normal element of life into something strange and obscene, whether its eating, breathing, or masturbation. I imagine this film is how hardcore religious fanatics must look at the “evils of cranking one out”. You’ll have to see what I mean to understand, but let’s just say, I warned you.
Feigelfeld fills his film with all sorts of queasy imagery. Erotic milk-sucking aside (yep), Hagazussa lulls the viewer into a haunting trance with the macabre beauty of it all, such as a long shot underwater that sees blood blooming like roses. It’s all like a mesmerizing dream, assisted by composer Mmmd and a spooky soundscape in creating genuine chills to turn this from an odd tale into a tragic nightmare. A cacophony of sounds creeps underneath the soundtrack. Trees creak and breathe, recalling the dark forest of Hansel and Gretel. And a skull given to Albrun by a priest whispers in a corner, always watching her. Hagazussa is one of those films that crawls through the mud at a slow pace, gradually getting nastier and more shocking as it burrows under your skin.
This film is all rich atmosphere, made stronger by the heavy presence of folktale lore surrounding Albrun. Hagazussa carries shades of The Witch in that sense, a dark, brooding film steeped in myth and a sinister subtext. For some, the film may be too subtle in the way it handles evil. The devil always seems to be present, though is never named, appearing as snakes, maggots, or maybe even the groaning of the trees. Hagazussa never resorts to spoon-feeding its audience. This is an intelligent horror film that takes some digesting, but is a rewarding feast of terror nonetheless. But it does take patience, and certainly won’t be for anyone looking for scare a minute, mindless horror entertainment with witches.
Whether or not Albrun truly is a witch I won’t say, but I can tell you that Hagazussa is a powerful, sad film from the point of view of a woman who at least believes she is involved with a dark power, culminating in a nightmarish, pain-ridden finale. The last image of Albrun is singed into my mind. I’ll be thinking about this film well into the end of the year. Hagazussa is easily one of the best horror indies of the year so far, and evidence that horror news outlet turned film distribution company Bloody Disgusting is on the verge of becoming the next A24, presenting some fantastic, wholly original genre content. Give Hagazussa a shot. It’s a strange, unnerving tale that probably won’t make sense at first, yet the longer it sits with you, the more its secrets begin to unravel, and the more you’ll grow to appreciate the unforgettable horror of Hagazussa.
Hagazussa is now out on VOD.
By Matt Konopka