My first film of the second annual Brooklyn Horror Film Fest might have been enough to send a more sensitive, and perhaps more self aware, film critic packing. Not because it was bad, but rather because it was such a slow and creeping build to a moment of utter horror and disgust that I should have known nothing else could compare. Hagazussa, a graduate film, is one of the most confident debuts this writer has ever seen, and while its pacing is not for the easily distracted, its climax left me upset for days to come. It was, easily, the highlight not only of my fest experience, but of my October.
The plot is deceptively simple. Albrun (Celine Peter) lives alone with her mother Martha (Claudia Martini) in the Alps. The time is the 15th century, so two lonely women, one of whom had a child out of wedlock, unsurprisingly are ostracized as witches. Martha becomes ill, and slowly starts to lose her mind as well. Things get dark and disturbing, and soon Albrun is left alone. The film then rejoins Albrun fifteen years later as an adult (this time portrayed in my favorite performance of the film by Aleksandra Cwen), and she has in many ways continued the tradition of her mom: living in isolation, having a child alone, and being treated poorly by the locals. She has strained relationships and possibly untrustworthy ones with locals and the priest, but something is calling to her in the woods, and things start to get creepy. Soon Albrun is spurred by treatment and circumstance towards an ever more intense series of terrible acts that lead to a truly disturbing ending.
Not only is Hagazussa narratively compelling, it is also visually stunning. And while there are moments that feel lacking in momentum, the visuals are always so brilliant and so assured that they overwhelm these brief moments. While I am enchanted with this film, the intensity of it, and the amazing visuals, I am also a bit skeptical. I think there is not much there, and I prefer stories of witches in which those women end up perhaps a little more on top. Albrun is in some ways a tragic figure, one who walks between the supernatural and the insane, and certainly does not win out or even experience satisfaction. The horror that comes for her, though it might also come through her, is truly upsetting. Those are perhaps minor concerns. The film truly is shot and edited with an insight that is astounding. Each moment felt perfectly framed, the sound editing and music reaching a sublime level of balance.
There is more to say about what HAPPENS in the film, but Hagasuzza is a film that must be seen. To spoil it would only be cruel. Let us simply admit that, for me, though I have rather thick skin, the film was difficult. However, I am so impressed by it, and by its beauty, that I am willing to completely ignore my revulsion. This might not be possible for all viewers, so I recommend this movie with some caution. I do recommend it, though. It is a film that maybe speaks to something even greater, a future for director Lukas Feigelfeld. Not just because of the atmosphere of pervasive dread he weaves, but because of the world building he does. This film is lonely and sparse, and I am sure that is to some extent a limitation of its budget. However, Feigelfeld does amazing things, making that sparseness not just an asset, but an essential element of the storytelling. It is not just that the production never feels cheap, which it does not. It is that the film feels exactly the right size to tell this lonely and unsettling tale. Not for the faint of heart or perhaps even more of stomach, Hagazussa: The Heathen’s Curse is some truly promising film making and I am excited to see more.