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Review: The medieval horror of ‘Hagazussa’ unsettles as it beguiles

(L-R)- Aleksandra Cwen and Tanja Petrovsky as Albrun and Swinda in “HAGAZUSSA.” Credit: Doppelgänger
Aleksandra Cwen, left, and Tanja Petrovsky in the film “Hagazussa.”
(Doppelgänger Releasing)

In the first segment of the four-part supernatural horror film “Hagazussa,” a 15th century Austrian farm girl named Albrun watches her diseased mother slowly die. Both women know no one will be coming to help them, because the surrounding community thinks this strange, hermetic pair of goat ranchers are witches.

The second segment jumps to Albrun as an adult (played by Aleksandra Cwen): still shunned by her neighbors and now the mother of a newborn daughter — though no one seems eager to step up and claim to be the father. One local woman offers to be Albrun’s friend and protector, but when she too proves duplicitous, the village outcast is provoked into becoming as evil as everyone believes her to be.

Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Lukas Feigelfeld, “Hagazussa” — dubbed “a gothic folk tale” — waits until well over an hour into its running time before it starts getting truly grim. If not for the deep shadows, the rumbling sound design and the dissonant droning soundtrack by experimental rock band MMMD, the movie could almost pass for a starkly realistic slice of life documenting the harshness of rural Europe over 500 years ago.

In parts three and four though, the film starts living up to the ominous foreboding of its first half. Albrun finally answers the forest’s dark call, which she’s been hearing all her life. She ingests psychedelic mushrooms, lets maggots wriggle around her toes, bathes in murky pond-water and … well, she does something else, best left unspoiled.

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“Hagazussa” never becomes a full-on thriller. It’s more of an unsettling mood piece, like “The Witch or the classic 1922 Scandinavian occult inquiry “Häxan.” The movie’s chapters are like four short films — each mysterious and bordering on the abstract.

But for those who can embrace “Hagazussa” more as an experience than as a spook show, this film is utterly absorbing and hard to shake. Feigelfeld leans into the perverse sensuality of his scenario: the crimson stain of blood on a white sheet, the thin white milk from a goat’s teat, the juice of an apple exploding across a chin and so on. He’s got an incredible eye; he’s a newcomer to watch.

Does his picture have any larger purpose than just quietly creeping out audiences? That’s harder to say. It does deal with superstition and an archaic society’s destructive distrust of women. But this isn’t really a “making a point” kind of movie, any more than it’s a conventionally chilling tale of the paranormal.

Instead, “Hagazussa” is like a series of beguiling paintings and photographs from an old history book, each suggesting something inexplicable, which the viewer has to puzzle out, since the subjects are long dead. Look long enough and deep enough, and — like Albrun — you may start to go a little mad.

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‘Hagazussa’

In German with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes

Playing: Starts Friday, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; also on VOD

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