Lukas Feigelfeld’s arty folk-horror debut is a grim fairy tale about women shunned and vilified as witches during Europe’s dark ages.
Anyone who found the deranged cannibalistic excesses of Darren Arofonsky’s mother! a little too vanilla should feast their senses on the deliciously dark flavors of Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse. An atmospheric folk-horror fable that combines an constant undertow of creeping dread with a striking avant-gothic visual style, it marks the feature debut of Vienna-born, Berlin-based director Lukas Feigelfeld. The title draws on an ancient term used to describe witches and female demons across German-speaking Europe in the Middle Ages.
Amazingly, Hagazussa is also Feigelfeld’s film school graduation project, and was partly financed with crowdfunder donations. But it looks and feels far more substantial than most indie debuts, confidently bending genre rules with its minimalist dialogue and hallucinatory plot, which owes more to David Lynch or Lars Von Trier than to more orthodox horror maestros. While its abstract, dreamlike tone will clearly make it a niche item, this classy art-house chiller should appeal to more discerning genre fans and cult movie buffs generally. Launched at Fantastic Fest in Austin last month, where Raven Banner Entertainment signed up worldwide rights, it makes its UK debut at London Film festival this week.
In the remote Austrian alps in the 15th century, superstition reigns supreme. While plague stalks the land, paranoid peasants swap cautionary folk tales about evil spirits, pagans, Jews and other outsiders. Viewed with suspicion by their neighbors, young Albrun (Celina Peter) and her mother (Claudia Martini) share a humble log-cabin farm nestled in snowy mountain woodland. Orphaned at a young age, Albrun is left traumatized and alone, though she still hears her mother’s ghostly voice calling her in the dead of night.
Jumping forward 20 years, adult Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen) is now a single mother herself, still living at the forest farm with a newborn baby. The local priest shuns her and neighbors still routinely bully her: “nobody wants your rotten milk, you ugly witch”. One villager (Tanja Petrovsky) lures Albrun unto an uneasy friendship, but her motives prove malevolent, enticing the younger woman in a macabre sadomasochistic sex ritual. The final act sees a brutalized, ostracized, possibly insane Albrun descend into a psychedelic nightmare of infernal visions and cannibalistic horrors.
Feigelfeld is stronger on episodic set-pieces than overarching narrative, staging some stand-out scenes including a disturbingly eroticized goat-milking sequence and a lyrical underwater plunge into a swampy pond. Whether these terrifying events are actually happening to Abrun, or whether she is suffering from delusions and hallucinations, is a question he leaves hanging. There is plenty of feminist subtext at work here, and a final resolution of sorts, though this works better on a poetic than a literal level.
But even if the open-ended story does not satisfy conventional genre rules, Hagazussa works very well as a spellbinding audio-visual symphony. Mostly shooting in long, slow, hypnotic, wordless takes, Feigelfeld presents us with a painterly parade of mesmerizing tableaux and arresting motifs: skulls, candles, horned beasts, mist wafting across wintry woodland vistas. The eerie score, by Greek avant-rock trio MMD, is a crucial part of the overall package with its low moans, ominous drones and whispered incantations.