One of Shudder’s newest entries, Hagazussa, is written and directed by Lukas Feigelfeld. The poster claims it is “A SPOOKY, SPELLBINDING AUDIOVISUAL SYMPHONY” and “MIND-BLOWINGLY CREEPY.” Reading those blurbs now, I realize that neither mention the story, which is probably apropos, because while the quotes aren’t lying to you, the movie is spooky and creepy, any evidence of a story is almost nonexistent.
You will find spoilers in this review, so if you’re one of those NEVER SHOW ME SPOILERS people, turn back now. That’s all the warning you’ll get, so off we go …
Set in the fifteenth century, the film focuses on a mother and daughter that live in a remote cabin outside of the village. In the opening sequence, Martha takes Albrun sledding, but she never moves close to the other mothers, and Albrun, for her part, reaches the top of the hill to find all the other children are gone. So the idea that even among others, they are alone is very nicely handled.
After a long spooky walk through the woods, they arrive home from the sledding trip. That same evening, three villagers turn up outside their cabin. The men are wearing animal heads for some bizarre reason that is never quite explained. They bang on the door and circle the cabin threateningly while accusing Martha of being a witch. Then they go away and that’s that. Seriously. They’re never seen or referenced again.
Shortly thereafter, Albrun’s mother suffers from a strange disease. The doctor and a nun come to the cabin, examine the mother, and then they leave the child, Albrun, to take care of her. It seemed … odd to me that they would leave such a small child with a desperately ill mother, but hey, maybe it’s a cultural thing, so I let it slide. Later, Albrun awakens to find her mother gone. She leaves the cabin and follows her mother’s trail to find Martha has died in a bog with snakes crawling over her body.
Then the film flashes forward fifteen years to Albrun living alone in the same cabin with her infant daughter. No explanation is given for the infant’s presence. We never see or hear about the child’s father, but Albrun is a good and patient mother, except for those times when she leaves the infant alone for hours and hours, because who does that?
Anyway, a village woman named Swinda seemingly befriends Albrun, only to betray her and facilitate her rape by another villager. Let me pause here to state that nothing in this film is graphic, nor does that hurt the movie. Aleksandra Cwen, as the adult Albrun, reflects the horror of the act with her expressions.
However, this is where Hagazussa seemed to lose me. Maybe it’s because I’m tired of seeing rape being used a character device to bring out the evil in a woman. In Hagazussa, the act is given double duty to show us first Swinda’s wickedness and then as the reason for Albrun’s decline into madness, or witchcraft, or something.
Needless to say, now that she’s been raped, all of Albrun’s evil inclinations are released. She takes her revenge, not with nefarious witchcraft, but by placing a dead rat in the village water supply, which, as it turns out, is actually more effective. When the villagers, including the wicked Swinda, die, Albrun wanders into the woods, eats a mushroom, and falls into madness, or witchcraft, or something, we’re never exactly sure.
And that fairly sums up Hagazussa in its entirety. Stunning cinematography of the Alps and its dense forests—lots and lots of haunted views of the Alps. Long, long atmospheric shots ... loooonng atmospheric shots of adult Albrun standing, sitting, walking, leaving her infant daughter alone in a crib for hours and hours and hours at a time (seriously, who does that?), Albrun having a sensual moment beside her goat (don't ask), Albrun going mad in the woods … you get the picture.
The imagery is meant to evoke Gothic dread, including a scene with a priest in the church’s ossuary, and while all of these moments perform a slow-burn of creepiness, the tension never quite results in any type of cathartic release for the viewer. Each scene seems meticulously designed to move toward that magical moment when all the pieces fall into place, but the puzzle remains broken right until the end.
It would have been great if all that atmosphere had added up to a plot of some substance. As it is, it's more of a character study (and I don't mind those), but Hazazussa went on far longer than it needed to and quite often felt like a series of haunting shorts without ever reaching any form of cohesion.
Rating: YMMV (i.e. give it a view, your mileage may vary)