The possibilities for experimentation within the bounds of horror cinema are endless. For every commercially accessible masterpiece, there’s also a bizarre, unorthodox experience waiting to confound viewers. At a festival where there are dozens of films that fall into both categories, this writer has found one of the most unusual offerings to be Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse, a slow-paced, profoundly atmospheric plunge into the nightmare of seclusion.
Fans of The Witch will recognize the sparse, period-accurate style at work in this film, here recreating a medieval Austrian village deep in the woods. We begin with a young girl and her exhausted mother, snowbound in their cabin as villagers accuse them of being witches. A traumatic incident leaves the girl stranded as she grows to adulthood, a pariah of her village and mother to a bastard child—the effects of which begin to take their toll on her as her mother’s fate becomes cyclical.
Unlike the above mentioned film, however, Hagazussa doesn’t tell a clearly structured story. There are no spirits or demons here (or are there…?), just a vague sense of dread that leads to a truly repulsive act. Many of the scenes focus on apparently mundane set pieces that have no overt significance. The dread is palpable, though, mostly through the film’s landscape. Director Lukas Feigelfeld creates his world with intense attention to texture and detail. Each frame evokes a sense of awful stillness, whether closed-off and claustrophobic or sublime and vast.
While the eerily subdued cast performs their roles well, cinematographer Mariel Baquiero is the true star of the film; because the narrative is as sparse as its characters’ surroundings, the frame becomes essential, and her visual language evokes endless sensory wonder. Combined with grotesquely detailed but subtle sound design and a gut-churning score, the film’s dreamy sequences transcend the two-dimensional space and draw the viewer into its world. There are some scenes that genuinely frighten or shock through the sheer discomfort of what’s happening on screen. It’s a feat of artful evocation of a psyche and location, even more effective when considered as an art piece, not a cinematic story.
The story, too, is the film’s biggest flaw. It doesn’t explore anything highly original or developed—some may even find it painfully enigmatic. Some of the protagonist’s acts divert from her established behaviors or goals, which cause frustration after spending so much time with her. That being said, the performance brings across an uncomfortable strangeness that feels accurate to the time period. The character is ostracized for no defined reason, and the psychological effects of this generate the horror that we witness. Without any magic or demonic manifestations to scare the audience, Feigelfeld hints at the reality of witchcraft instead: when someone is told they’re evil, they might just begin to believe it.
Many of Hagazussa’s flaws also make it so fascinating. It doesn’t achieve a revelatory or truly frightening narrative, but it also doesn’t reach for that. The film’s gorgeous photography and dread-summoning soundscapes conjure pure sensation, a rare feat in any medium. When world-building and atmosphere often feel left behind in modern cinema, a little gem like this becomes a dark, poisonous treat for lovers of cinema that pushes boundaries. Maybe the barriers it pushes aren’t particularly new; but regardless, its artistic achievement leaves an insidious mark on the mind.
Movie Score: 3.5/5
In case you missed it, check here to read more of our coverage of the 2017 Sitges Film Festival.