If “The Witch” had been directed by the early-career Werner Herzog of “Aguirre,” “Heart of Glass,” and “Even Dwarfs Started Small,” the result might have been something in the spirit of “Hagazussa,” Lukas Feigelfeld’s wholly arresting feature debut. Given the extended U.S. title “A Heathen’s Curse” to underline saleable supernatural elements, this enigmatic folktale-cum-horror is likely to flummox or even exasperate mainstream genre fans with its sparse plotting, slow pace, and near-impenetrable mysteries. But its mix of the poetical, repugnant, and phantasmagorical will weave a singular spell for more adventuresome, arthouse-friendly viewers.
Nearly two years after its premiere at Fantastic Fest 2017, it’s getting a limited U.S. theatrical release (roughly one screening per day, mostly at big-city Alamo Drafthouse locations) from Music Box’s genre subsidiary Doppelgänger, with a home-formats launch planned for the following week. Cult status is assured, and future work from Vienna native Feigelfeld — this is, incredibly, his film school graduation project — will be eagerly awaited.
In an undesignated time and middle-European place (the film’s promotional materials stipulate “a remote Alpine village in the 15th century”), a woman and her daughter live apart, shunned as witches by the ignorant, fearful local peasantry. (We never catch a glimpse of this rural society’s ruling class.) The mother Martha (Claudia Martini) does indeed seem to work with herbs and potions and such, though to no harmful purpose. They can’t save her, however, when she’s stricken with some plague-like ailment — depicted via gruesome pustules that are among the rare but genuinely revolting bits of “gore” here. This leaves preadolescent daughter Albrun (played initially by Celina Peter) orphaned and alone.
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The story then jumps forward to adult Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen) subsisting on her flock of goats, raising an infant (its paternity unknown) yet otherwise isolated despite all evident lack of ill will or deeds. Naturally, she responds with surprised gratitude to unsolicited overtures of friendship from Swinda (Tanja Petrovsky), a vivacious local about her age. But Swinda is not, as it turns out, to be trusted. Indeed, she takes advantage of Albrun’s naïveté in the worst way imaginable, culminating in a scene of sexual assault that is not at all graphic, yet psychologically horrific.
Drawing upon her presumably inherited “witching” powers at last, Albrun is avenged, and then some. But as so often seems to be the case in such tales, deploying the “dark arts” requires payment in return — exacting a terrible toll from Albun and her child.
“Hagazussa” (an Old High German term for witch) grows more and more hallucinogenic, the climactic events rendered only more so by the seemingly spellbound heroine’s unwise consumption of a forest mushroom. If last year’s standout psychedelic genre piece “Mandy” was lysergic cinema par excellence, this equally trippy (if otherwise very different) quasi-horror revenge tale offers a nightmare soaked in psilocybin, its every element queasily organic.
Cinematographer Mariel Baqueiro’s primary past work has been on Feigelfeld’s prior mid-length feature (2014’s 44-minute “Interference”) and shorts, and her sensibility is as distinctively mature as his own. This is a frequently ravishing film, as attuned to the mysticism of landscapes as prime Herzog, while capable of jolting us with the occasional brutal image.
Editor Jorg Volkmar’s measured pacing — more inexorable than sluggish — a droning score by Greek duo MMMD, Nikas Kammertons’ detailed sound design, Marcel Weber’s discreet visual effects, and Dana Dumann’s production design for the few interiors (including an eerily skull-lined church) all further heighten the atmospheric impact of this unsettling vision. Kudos are also earned by Cwen, whose committed performance manages to feel fully dimensionalized despite her having almost no dialogue to work with.