'Hagazussa' & 'The VVitch' | The Battle for Folk Horror's Soul?
Just over a year ago now Bloody Disgusting’s joint release with Doppelgänger Releasing Hagazussa was unleashed upon the streaming world. The feature film debut of director/writer Lukas Feigelfeld premiered at Fantastic Fest in 2017 to rave reviews for its assured, atmospheric directing and haunting presentation of the beliefs held true within the Austrian Alps in the 15th century. It was a time where there was still a natural and inherent fear of witches and magic, something which Hagazussa seemed to take full advantage of.
Being from the UK my access to the film was limited, so I satiated over the comparisons to Robert Eggers’ The VVitch and counted down the days until I could sink my teeth in and once I did…I wasn’t quite sure how to feel. Whether it was a case of reputation or expectation I don’t know, but it became one of those films that fell to the pit of my stomach and refused to budge. I couldn’t argue with the exquisite location work and cinematography or the dedication to its craft (seriously, for a debut too) but it was in the story department where I initially believed the film to be lacking.
Of course, I devoured The VVitch upon arrival. We all did. The ‘New England Folktale’ became one of, if not the, pivotal period horror film. The 17th century aesthetics and dialogue naturally danced on the tongues of its cast and Eggers’ minimal, naturalistic lighting and matter-of-fact directorial style made us fearful puritans just like the characters themselves. The thing is, it was easy to love The VVitch, and yet I couldn’t stop thinking about Hagazussa. To the point where I was inclined to revisit it.
The similarities between the two are numerous, but mostly superficial. Hagazussa is in fact an Old High German term for ‘Witch’, and both films take place in similarly desolate locations amidst woodland against a witchcraft-fearing backdrop. Hagazussa’s subtitle of ‘A Heathen’s Curse’ exaggerates the negative connotation of witchcraft, and both films follow a young female protagonist (Aleksandra Cwen & Anya Taylor-Joy) as they are haunted and enveloped by the very notion of wicked sorcery. Both were even heavily advertised as ‘Folk Tales’ and subsequently earned the added titles of ‘Folk Horror’ in various pieces of coverage. But ‘Folk Horror’ is a strange beast in and of itself. The 1970s trifecta of The Wicker Man, Blood on Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General are often touted as the first assured instances of folk horror on screen due to their adherence to historical context – in particular that of pre-Christian beliefs. That’s right, before the west became god-fearing we had other things to fear! Demons weren’t yet dispatched by a leader named Satan (himself a fallen angel and nemesis to the almighty) but were in fact natural threats brought on by poorly-behaved children and a need for the Earth to feast every once in a while.
I myself have an active interest in old folklore and beliefs from around the world, but it’s hardly extensive as my limit thus far has been reading Reginald Scott’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft and scouring the internet for a few hours every week. Folk horror seems destined to act simultaneously as entertainment and education for these often-bypassed periods of historical fearmongering, and there’s a dozen different ways to handle such a conundrum.
But what if I were to tell you that Hagazussa, a film synonymous with witchcraft and endless comparisons to a closely released masterpiece on the subject of witches, didn’t actually feature any witches at all?
Thanks to a wonderful UK blu-ray release (courtesy of Arrow Video) I was able to know where to look for bits of historical context in order to further understand Feigelfeld’s film. Taking inspiration from old pagan beliefs as well as his mother’s Austrian mountain upbringing, Lukas imbues his German film with a frank reality which was present at the time. There are hints and namechecks for cultural beliefs, but to a westerner such as myself I merely took them as hints to a growing supernatural force that would be explored throughout the rest of the film. In fact, my whole diagnosis of the film perhaps lacking a narrative was merely due to my expectation for the film to adhere to me. I understood The VVitch and felt a small tinge of pride whenever a friend of mine confessed they couldn’t hack the language. It was a pride I kept hidden in fear of seeming like the pompous, pretentious fool I am, but pride nonetheless. Yet here, because I didn’t understand it I immediately thought it to be the fault of the film. Funny that.
Now, should it be a requirement for you as an audience member to do research on a film’s topic beforehand? Of course not. There are films that require you go in blind, but others are enriched by knowledge and understanding. It’s why ambiguity inspires re-watches. You can enjoy the lavish production values and independent spirit of Hagazussa without this understanding, but it was only after looking into the essence of so-called folk horror that it got me excited.
From the outset Hagazussa tells the story of Albrun, a woman whose mother is accused of witchcraft and dies suddenly under mysterious circumstances and appears to pass her insidious essence on to her. After following Albrun through her life, she’s mistreated by the local community for her inherent wickedness and takes revenge on them by poisoning their water supply and freeing herself from the shackles of ‘normal’ human existence. The parallels to The VVitch are clear from the offset. Alongside themes of isolation and the treatment of female hysteria, both films appear to feature similar conclusions in that the titular magically-endowed are able to free themselves from their tormentors/family members before succumbing to the ideologies that their communities have for witches. Therefore this, combined with their rather cerebral sense of storytelling, equates to folk horror, right?
Hagazussa cleverly uses the historical context and broadly known surface levels of mythology regarding witches to its advantage. Young Albrun’s mother Martha (Claudia Martini) lives in isolation with a dark (black) cat and carries welts and lesions on her body as marks of the devil. When a small trio of pagan-like masked individuals torment her and Albrun during the night my mind harkened back to the likes of The Wicker Man or Kill List; they were going to be the cause of Martha’s witchery coming out. Alas, I was wrong. In fact, it was only after researching a fleeting reference to the ‘twelfth night’ ritual held in place throughout Austria in the 15th century that I discovered the trio were actually insidious members of the community pretending to be Perchta, a witch who punished naughty children and those with evil in their hearts by gutting their stomachs open and filling them with straw and pebbles. It was here where the genius of Hagazussa fully set in.
As a tale of witchcraft, it works, yet as a story about mob-mentality and upbringing Hagazussa reigns supreme. As common public beliefs in the 15th century changed from paganistic to Christian, child Albrun buys into the mindset that her mother is in fact a witch and that as a by-product witches are real. The lesions are no more than untreated tumours and her sudden death comes as the result of long-term cancer, which slowly eats away at Martha’s mind and leads her to abuse Alburn and implant upon her the idea that she has the same wickedness passed down into her veins. It’s this internal guilt that’s explored throughout the rest of the film’s three subtitled parts ‘HORN’, ‘BLOOD’ and ‘FIRE’ (all spelled in the rune alphabet of the elder futhark, no less).
“To strengthen the faith of a religious community, it requires all sacrilege be cleansed.”
We know nothing of Alburn’s life between these moments aside the fact that she now has an infant daughter and continues to live a secluded life. It’s only when she’s introduced to the parson, surrounded by skulls and other bones (possibly the least subtle thing in the whole film), and given her mother’s polished skull in an attempt to clean the community, that locals are made aware of her past and torture her for it. Much like Perchta, the goat she relies on (and occasionally masturbates aside – she is a lonely woman) is gutted and she’s violently attacked for a past that isn’t her fault. The idea of witchcraft is her a curse that casts her out as a heathen and drives her to revenge and eventual insanity.
Feigefeld exploits the intentions of films before it in order to make the audience compliant in these actions. The slow-motion, euphoric direction accompanied by MMMD’s haunting score during the aforementioned masturbation sequences promote Alburn as the exact thing we believe her to be. Her timid mannerisms and quiet voice come across as calculated rather than reserved, allowing her actions later on to be expected when in reality they’re a huge revelation. The VVitch steers into the supernatural with both feet forward using fearsome God speak, unknown illnesses and grotesque unexplainable happenings yet Hagazussa’s grotesquery comes from its vivid small details. Maggots worming through a cluster of mushrooms or blood seeping through stagnant water make Hagazussa a difficult watch amidst its pondering bleakness but it’s all in aid of this promotion of Alburn’s (conceived) guilt.
The VVitch offers everything western audiences have come to expect from a folk horror; crackling sabbaths, talking animals, speaking in tongues and transfiguration present an almost idyllic, Disney-fied version of folk horror. In actuality, the ‘true’ essence of folk horror would dwell on the ‘folk’ aspect by feeding off the fears present outside of/before our culture. It’s the same way that the phrase ‘elevated horror’ has somehow snuck into the lexicon despite meaning…well, nothing. The paganistic images and old-fashioned beliefs still tell good, even masterful stories but does it make said stories part of folk horror? I’d actually argue yes, despite what my writing’s been leading towards.
However, with this in mind I’d argue that Hagazussa morphs into a historical drama on the treatment of women accused of witchcraft and the mental toll such demonisation incurs – but this is only after I had researched the topic. Feigelfeld has confirmed that he doesn’t approve of the comparisons made between his and Eggers’ debuts and I can’t blame him, they’re different beasts (but beasts all the same). The deplorable action taken by Alburn are the result of unchecked mental health deterioration (shadowing her mother’s unchecked cancer) and later her quest for freedom via the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms.
Whilst The VVitch ends with Taylor-Joy’s Thomasin rejoicing after being accepted into her new lifestyle, Cwen’s Albrun mirrors her mother’s demise and passes away after retreating into the wild, like the animals they’ve been made out to be. Martha passes away by a pond covered in snakes whilst Albrun passes away on the mountaintop before combusting in the rising sun, succumbing finally to the beliefs that have been haunting her for her entire life.
As horror continues to experience a renaissance, subgenres such as folk horror will always follow suit. Films like Ari Aster’s Midsommar wear it like a badge of honour, but it’s interesting to note the conventions that spring to mind when those words pop into our heads and whether a film has to jump through hoops and dilute its own culture in order to appease to a western audience. I’m glad I put the effort in with Hagazussa, and a film that educates as well as captivates is always a win. It’s not a battle for the soul of folk horror, but how both act in unison in order to acclimatise and then develop our understanding of things we know little about.
Y’know, or it’s just a film about a witch. Maybe this editorial should’ve been called ‘You’ve seen The VVitch, now watch THIS!!!!’ instead. Give it a shot if you’ve even got the slightest bit of interest. You might be pleasantly surprised.
Hagazussa is now available on blu-ray and digital.
In other news, I'm one of the writers for an upcoming online free arts festival called 'Show Face Festival' created by Lauren Elizabeth as a way for emerging writers/directors/producers/designers/illustrators/make-up artists to showcase their skills to the public across four days of new, original pieces all seen from the comfort of your own home. If you need a little bit more convincing, well, how about some words of wisdom for the show from ONLY BLOODY DAME JUDI DENCH!
The Festival will take place 28th August - 31st August, so plenty of time to make plans on how to view the show!
The show's website is now up and running too at https://www.showfacefestival.co.uk/ so have a look over there. There's some brilliant pieces of work being worked on by some amazing people who you're sure to hear more from in the future...so go on. Why not? Why risk going out into the COVID-masses? Stay inside and help promote new creative work...
Even if the world still manages to feel like it's on the way back to normality, remember that for so many normality may still be terrifying and cruel. The #BlackLivesMatter movement continues, and marches are still going on despite a lack of news coverage. But it's this sense of spirit that needs to be kept alive.
Remember if you just take 10 minutes to scour and source information on what's going wrong in the world, you'll be educated enough to start making decisions. Whether that's doing something physically or signing a petition online. The internet gives everyone a voice, remember to be one of the good ones.
The disgusting and confusing actions of a secret police over in Portland continue to kidnap people off the streets. Children are being taken away from their families. The cops who murdered Breonna Taylor still haven't been brought to justice. Never for a second lose the anger that makes you continue to think about the state of the world right now.
As always, self-education is important. So here's a helpful and constantly-updated list of resources on current events around the world. Take your 10 minutes, it's the least you can do.
Thank you for reading.
Hope you all stay safe and have a great day.
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