Hagazussa: A Heathenâ€™s Curse is a wonderful surprise.
Hiding in the depths of the horror streaming service Shudder is a creepy little tale of witchcraft that deserves attention. Hagazussa: A Heathenâ€™s Curse, from Austrian writer-director Lukas Feigelfeld, at times feels like a companion film to Robert Eggersâ€™ rapturously received 2015 The Witch. Though 17th century New England is replaced here by the 15th century Alps, the similarities are striking. Like The Witch, Hagazussa follows a young woman, isolated from her religious community, dealing with the possibility of evil in the depths of the forest. Then there are the titles; â€śHagazussaâ€ť is an old Germanic word for â€świtch.â€ť And both films feature creepy goats.
Yet Hagazussa stands on its own. In its wonderfully creepy opening section, the young woman, Albrun (played as a girl by Celina Peter and then as a young adult by Aleksandra Cwen), watches as her mother slowly succumbs to a mysterious ailment. The snow outside their door makes their already isolated location seem that much more cut off. As her mother worsens, Albrun tries to comfort her, which leads to a harrowing evocation of â€śLittle Red Riding Hood.â€ť These scenes are heightened by Feigelfeldâ€™s excellent use of sound (sniffing has never been so creepy) and Mariel Baqueiroâ€™s alternately claustrophobic and sweeping cinematography.
After this opening, the film jumps forward a few years and finds Albrun, now a goatherd, still living in her motherâ€™s house. Albrun herself is now a mother to a small infant, and her possible friendship with a local woman â€“ as well as an odd meeting with a priest, who gives her the gift of a painted skull â€“ show how unused to human contact she is. Which, of course, makes it a mystery as to who the father of her child could be. While the early scenes are marked by the oppressiveness of snow, here fog and storm clouds shrink the atmosphere of the verdant mountainsides where Albrun lives and works.
Sexual violence drives some of the plot, and though it is not used for exploitation, itâ€™s irritating to see a film with such rich female characters rely on rape as an impetus for action. On the other hand, Feigelfeld handles another familiar trope in a less expected way: motherhood. Itâ€™s a complicated thing in Hagazussa, just as it surely is in life, and though it is used in terrifying fashion here, those complications add to the horror.
Despite what must have been a limited budget, the proceedings in Hagazussa truly feel as if they could be taking place in the 15th century. The world feels at once terrifyingly small and overwhelmingly large, and the presence of death is always close. It helps that Feigelfeld has cast actors with exceedingly interesting faces, and Cwen in particular uses expressions that keep her at an armâ€™s length, as if humanity has changed so much in the last 600 years that we canâ€™t quite tell what (and how) she is thinking. Her performance is preposterously good for such an unheralded film, and itâ€™s made all the more impressive by the fact that itâ€™s nearly silent.
Hagazussa: A Heathenâ€™s Curse is a wonderful surprise. It visually powerful, and the constant sense of isolation that writer-director Lukas Feigelfeld milks from the time and place makes it stand out. Itâ€™s scary, yes, but also sad and disturbing, and though it leans into folklore and historical accuracy, this feels made in and for our current times.