By Scott Dorward
Hagazussa (Austria, 2017)
As regular listeners of The Good Friends of Jackson Elias may have noticed, I love folk horror. For someone who has lived in cities almost all his life, there is something about these tales of ancient evils lurking in woodlands and rural communities that speaks to me. Hagazussa has been on my list for some time. A macabre story of rural witchcraft set in 15th-century Austria? That sounds like it was made for me! But how does the reality live up to my expectations?
A young girl, Albrun, and her mother live in a woodland cabin in the Austrian Alps. They are visited by sinister men in masks and animal skins who accuse the mother of being a witch. Shortly after, the mother contracts the plague, descending into madness and death.
A couple of decades on, the adult Albrun, still living in the shack, has an infant daughter of her own. There is no sign of the baby’s father. Now, the locals torment Albrun, spreading rumours that she too is a witch. Her only friend is Swinda, the one villager who treats Albrun kindly.
When Swinda tells Albrun the local parson would like to see her, Albrun visits him in an ossuary. There, he presents her with her mother’s skull, suggesting that it does not belong among the remains of the righteous. Albrun takes the skull home, creating a shrine in her cabin.
As Albrun’s behaviour becomes increasingly eccentric, Swinda reveals herself to be less of a friend than she pretended to be. Following a terrible betrayal, Albrun seeks revenge against all who have wronged her. Will this save her or just turn her into the monster her neighbours believe her to be?
When I watch a film for the October Horror Movie Challenge, I take a screen capture every time I think an image might make a good illustration for the review. This turns into as measure of visually appealing I find the film. I think I must have taken as many captures of Hagazussa as every other film this month put together.
While almost every shot in Hagazussa is achingly beautiful, this is a creepy film. Its slow, brooding atmosphere breeds discomfort, and it regularly shows us horrors. Unusually, however, its greatest transgressions are portrayed in a matter-of-fact manner. There are none of the usual techniques of horror cinema. It owes more to the naturalistic style of Passolini.
The single most uncomfortable scene involves Albrun becoming sexually aroused while milking a goat. In a film that depicts child murder, cannibalism and rape, this is somehow the scene that stands out. Compared to this, Nicolas Cage milking that alpaca in Color Out of Space seems downright wholesome.
The story itself is about simple as stories get. There are strong parallels with The Witch, with a young woman driven to darkness by the accusations and rejection of those around her. The relative lack of dialogue and reliance on visual storytelling makes Hagazussa feel abstract, even dreamlike. This comes to a head when Albrun eats a hallucinogenic mushroom, taking us on a psychedelic trip into atrocity.
Hagazussa is perhaps easier to admire than enjoy. It is certainly one of the most stunning horror films I have seen. The use of landscape is superlative, bathing us in evil beauty. We are constantly reminded of the corruption that lies within the heart of the natural world. The minimalist, droning score is paired beautifully with the visuals. Every scene is perfectly constructed, reminding you of the sheer craft that went into this film’s construction. And yet I struggled.
If I wanted to be arch, I would say that Haguzassa is a film for those who cannot cope with the breakneck pace of Midsommar. The storytelling is glacial, with long scenes in which nothing really happens, although it doesn’t happen beautifully. This slowness is all the more marked because of the relative lack of character interaction. Hagazussa could be a silent film — its few lines of dialogue feel almost superfluous.
I would leap at the chance to watch Hagazussa on the big screen. Many of my reservations are almost certainly related to watching it on a laptop screen, which makes it harder to become immersed in a narrative like this. And while I did feel my patience being tested, I was never actually bored. Still, by the time I was done, I found myself wanting to watch something action packed. Maybe with a car chase.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Possessor (2020)
- The Boogey Man (1980)
- Jakob’s Wife (2021)
- The Queen of Black Magic (2019)
- Cold Hell (2017)
- Seance (2021)
- The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)
- Dachra (2018)
- Isle of the Dead (1945)
- After Midnight (2019)
- The Baby (1973)
- Hagazussa (2017)
- Frightmare (1974)
- The Eyes of My Mother (2016)
- Dave Made a Maze (2017)
- Raw (2016)
- The Old Ways (2020)
- Terror Train (1980)
- mon mon mon MONSTERS (2017)
- Sator (2019)
- Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
- The Lighthouse (2019)
- Anything For Jackson (2020)
- Warning: Do Not Play (Amjeon) (2019)
- Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
- The Field Guide to Evil (2019)
- A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
- The Wizard of Gore (1970)
- Fingers (2019)
- Lake Bodom (2016)
- Island of Lost Souls (1932)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!