Vampires, werewolves, zombies – horror’s most enduring monsters have all enjoyed impressive streaks of Hollywood horror success. Demonic possession movies never seem to go out of style. Comparatively, witches have had less sustained genre success. Yes, critics and fans alike regard The Blair Witch Project, The Witch, Suspiria, and The Craft as classics. But ‘the witch’ has never occupied the same cultural space as other horror monsters. Quality trumps quantity, however. German psychological thriller, Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse, arrived late in North America, but still impressed critics. Can Hagazussa cast the same spell as The Witch?
In the 15th century German Alps, young Albrun lives alone with her goat-herding mother. Surrounding townsfolk shun the mother and daughter, believing them to be witches. Years after her mother’s death, Albrun tends to her goats with only her newborn child for company. But when a curious local villager befriends her, Albrun’s isolated existence is turned upside down.
Hagazussa Casts a Haunting Spell
Like Robert Eggers’ The Witch, Hagazussa is an ambiguous, slow-burn of a horror movie. More vested in the psychological than visceral, first-time director Lukas Feigelfield mixes the cerebral with occasionally hallucinogenic imagery. Minimal dialogue coupled with the movie’s isolated setting strikes a haunting atmosphere from the opening frames. Arguably, this is the movie’s greatest strength. Given its lack of a driving story and exposition, Hagazussa is something experienced rather just watched. As such, the German triller necessitates a great deal of patience. Yet its narrative ambiguity and feeling of dread more than earn that attention. And Feigelfield maintains this tone for most of the movie.
Given its lack of a driving story and exposition, Hagazussa is something experienced rather just watched.
When Hagazussa isn’t building dread, its periodically disturbing. In particular, one scene with Albrun tending to a goat may be one of the more uncomfortable on-screen moments in recent memory. Though Feigelfield doesn’t fully embrace the same visual style as Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy, he invests benign objects with an unsettling dreamy quality. A flickering skull in a room’s corner captures the best of Hammer’s Gothic aesthetics. Albrun’s betrayal is brutal without revelling in graphic violence.
Slow-Burn Pacing Occasionally Descends Into Naval-Gazing
Aside from its nebulous story, Hagazussa suffers a little from its own lack of direction. That is, Feigelfield sometimes lingers too long on some scenes. Rather than feeling like a slow-burn, these moments feel more like navel-gazing. On the one hand, Hagazussa’s reflective moments are in keeping with Feigelfield’s story-telling style. Nonetheless, these scenes also detract from the movie’s often hypnotic journey. They drag things down too much when it feels like momentum should be picking up. As Hagazussa reaches its ending, the conclusion is likely to divide viewers. Some may find the ending anti-climatic, whereas others may be impressed with its surrealism.
Feigelfield sometimes lingers too long on some scenes. Rather than feeling like a slow-burn, these moments feel more like navel-gazing.
As for Hagazussa’s performances, Aleksandra Cwen’s quiet performance anchors the moody psychological thriller. With so little dialogue, Cwen conveys a range of powerful emotions. Like the movie itself, she achieves a certain ambiguity with her character. She’s alternately sympathetic and mysterious. As such, Cwen’s portrayal keeps the movie’s endpoint unclear to the end.
Hagazussa’s Slow Beats Still Make for Haunting Experience
As strange as it sounds, Hagazussa is less accessible than Robert Eggers’ The Witch. And this is unfortunate. Yes, Hagazussa often lingers too long on some scenes with little point. Nevertheless, Feigelfeld’s debut feature is both disturbing and haunting. At its best, when it’s focused, Hagazussa is a hypnotic journey that can often be described as gripping. Though it may not cast a spell on all horror fans, viewers who enjoy more art-house horror will appreciate Hagazussa.