Hagazussa – A Heathen’s Curse – Heathen Chemistry (London Film Festival Review)

Rating:

Prior to the second world war, Germany were the masters of the macabre with classics such as The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and Nosferatu. Since the it’s been slim pickings. A notable exception was last year’s fantastic trippy spook-fest Goodnight Mommy, and Lukas Feigelfeld’s latest feature may just scrape onto the list of watchable, if not brilliant, German horrors.

Low budget horror movies have done for pine forests what Disney have done for step-mothers. Hagazussa situates itself in a classic, if hardly original, spooky environment; pine forest – check, isolated wooden house – check, unbearably cold snowy winters – check; fire and brimstone local vicar – check, discordant droning strings – check, creepy peripheral characters – all present and correct. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, a known generic environment exists because it works, and it does help set Hagazussa up in an instantly familiar cinematic ecosystem.

We are initially introduced to Albrum, a shy young girl living in basic conditions with her goatherd mother Martha (Martini), a harsh unmaternal constant. The dialogue is incredibly sparse with Feigelfeld concentrating primarily on the futility of a repetitive family lifestyle in a hostile world. When Martha succumbs to a brutal form of plague, we forward 20 or years to see Albrum as an adult – Aleksandra Cwen taking over acting duty – still working the goats, living alone in her mother’s house now with a small baby. She rarely speaks to anyone and has abuse thrown at her by children as she takes her trips down to the local village. When she meets a friendly face – in Tanja Petrovsky’s local villager – she starts to open up a tad – well, we see her smile, once. It’s at this point, the awkward isolation and tension is replaced with a bizarre drug-induced witchcraft inspired horror-trip. In a similar way that 2012’s Sinister was hopelessly crippled by the sudden switch from real-life to supernatural, Hagazussa suffers from a parallel clumsiness. It’s easy to think of The Witch as a reference point, but the intentional social ineptness of Albrum fails to capture the human empathy felt for the psychological and spiritual struggles of Ralph Ineson’s William.

The main problem with Hagazussa is that it is difficult to care for its characters. It’s spookily watchable and beautifully filmed by DOP Mariel Baqueiro but unfortunately fails to deliver either the impact or mystery required to really engage. It feels like a M Night Shyamalan mid-life crisis but most frustratingly doesn’t fully reward the energy placed in getting through its very slow first hour’s build.

Dir: Lukas Feigelfeld

Scr: Lukas Feigelfeld

Cast: Claudia Martini, Aleksandra Cwen, Tanja Petrovsky

Prd: Simon Lubinski, Lukas Feigelfeld

DOP: Mariel Baqueiro  

Music: Peter Roigk

Country: Germany/Austria

Year: 2017

Run Time: 102 minutes