Friday, October 29, 2010

Hour of the Wolf

This post originally appeared as part of the Wonders in the Dark horror countdown. You can view all entries here.

"The Hour of the Wolf" is the hour between night and dawn. It is the hour when most people die. It is the hour when the sleepless are haunted by their deepest fear, when ghosts and demons are most powerful.

Imagine if I told you that the tagline above is for a movie called The Cannibals – sounds like an ordinary horror film, doesn’t it? Now, imagine I tell you that the above tagline is for a movie directed by Ingmar Bergman – you would probably think it was an art-house film about the dark night of the soul. Okay, so now I will tell you that Ingmar Bergman – after having a nervous breakdown – decided to make two of his darkest and most personal films in the form of Persona (a wildly popular and revered film art-house film) and Hour of the Wolf (originally entitled The Cannibals).  As odd as it may seem to see an Ingmar Bergman on a list for the best horror films I’ve always felt that it was around this time of the 60’s and 70’s that Bergman was not only making the best movies of his career, but he was also doing it in the form of deeply introspective and contemplative films that came from the darkest depths of the man’s artistry and philosophies.

During these two decades – two of the most experimental for film – Bergman was essentially making art-house horror films in the form of: Persona, A Passion, Hour of the Wolf, Shame, The Silence, and Cries and Whispers. Bergman is certainly an unorthodox director to be speaking about in terms of horror film, but if one looks at the themes of the aforementioned films – and the fact that during the 60’s and 70’s he relied more heavily on the aesthetic of that era to shock and jolt the audience out of their malaise – it’s easy to see that Bergman made films that are, at their core, horror stories about human isolation, and like any good horror movie they contain humane and everyday characters who try their hardest to overcome the various perils and struggles they face. These philosophical and soul-searching conundrums are filtered through an aesthetic of unreality, and Hour of the Wolf is the most pronounced of this kind of arty horror story, and it’s one of the auteur’s most underrated films.

The film begins with the sounds of a film crew setting up a shot as a woman (Liv Ullmann) walks out of a cottage and approaches a bench. She sits in front of the camera and begins addressing it. She alludes to the fact that whoever is behind the camera is not going to get anymore information from her as they already have the journals. And then before much can be said we fade to black and see a boat approaching shore, and we wonder, as we always do with Bergman, what the Swedish auteur has up his sleeve this time. Obviously we’re being told a story, but what kind of story? And what deep themes is the master going to explicate this time? There’s a lot to say here about “the artist” (a favorite subject of Bergman’s), but for the sake of this countdown I will focus primarily on the psychological horror aspects of the film.

The people on the boat are Johan Borg (Max von Sydow) and his pregnant wife Alma (the woman from the opening shot), and they’re on their way to a remote cabin for what looks to be a getaway of sorts in hopes to jolt the creativity of Johan, a troubled painter. Things seem serene enough until Johan begins to confide in his wife his deepest and darkest fears. One day he shows her drawings of demonic figures he labels “the bird-man”, “spider-man”, “meat-eater”, “insect”, and “the lady with the hat”; these figures haunt him to the point of no sleep, and as the dawn approaches it brings with it the vargtimmen– “The Hour of the Wolf”. This is the time, Johan explains, that the most deaths and births occur, and ask Alma to stay by his side throughout the night to watch over him.

Needless to say eerie happenings begin to occur in the form of “demons” (they could specters from the past or hallucinations) popping up and interacting with Alma and Johan: a 216 year-old woman dressed in white who gives Alma some information about her husband’s diary; a beautiful woman, also dressed in white, who appears during one Johan’s bouts with artistic frustration, and claims to be one of Johan’s mistresses from the past; someone who claims that since Johan is an artist that he must really know people; and the most bizarre of the bunch a Baron named von Merkens who lives on the island and invites Alma and Johan to his castle.

Alma fears the worst after reading Johan’s diary, but she commits to facing whatever it is she fears is coming – the unnamed evil – while Johan remains stoic and unmoved by her experience, and in a powerful scene where Alma pours out her heart to Johan, he simply walks away from her. Then Bergman hits us with the title card for his movie and we fade back in on Johan’s face being lit by a match while Alma sits behind him (in deep focus, showcasing one of my very favorite moments from the master Sven Nykvist). It is now the vargtimmen – an exhausting marathon of dark secrets and nightmares. The scene is simple and understated (what else is new for a Bergman, right?), but creepy as hell as Johan begins telling Alma about a disturbing memory from his childhood where he was thrown into a closet as a form of punishment; a closet where, he was told, a little person lived who gnawed off the toes of naughty children.  The way the scene is shot, lit, and acted makes something so simple so truly horrifying. He then moves on to telling her a story that he never thought he would tell anyone; a story of repressed homosexuality, sexual experimentation, violence, murder, and shame. It’s a story that changes everything for Alma, and it’s one of the most haunting, horrifying, and tautly constructed scenes Bergman ever filmed.

What follows falls into the category of straight horror as Alma and Johan are visited by the Baron who invites them once more to his castle. Johan wishes Alma to leave so that he may kill himself, but again she refuses to be a coward in the face of fear, and insists on staying with her husband. Once in the castle Johan is made up with makeup and a leather jacket, and his mistress (the woman who approaches him earlier in the movie) is waiting for him, tied to a table. The film ends with an ambiguous confrontation of the couple’s demons. We’re never quite sure whether or not what we’re seeing at the end is Johan’s demons or Alma’s, and Bergman ends his film the way he began it with Alma addressing the camera and asking the audience whether or not it’s true that if a woman stays with a man long enough, she becomes like that man. Essentially that loving that man for that long and living with that man for that long will eventually change a woman, but is it true, she asks us.

Hour of the Wolf isn’t just one of Bergman’s most personal films, as stated above, but it was one of his most necessary films as the filmmaker himself addresses in his fantastic book Images: My Life in Film where he says:

Hour of the Wolfis seen by some as a regression after Persona. It isn’t that simple. Persona was a breakthrough, a success that gave me the courage to keep on searching along unknown paths. For several reasons that film has become a more open affair than others, more tangible: a woman who is mute, another who speaks; therefore a conflict. Hour of the Wolf, on the other hand, is more vague. There is within that film a consciously formal and thematic disintegration. When I see Hour of the Wolf today, I understand that it is about a deep-seated division within me, both hidden and carefully monitored, visible in both my earlier and later work. To me, Hour of the Wolf is important since it is an attempt to encircle a hard-to-locate set of problems and get inside them. I dared to take a few steps, but I didn’t go the whole way.

It’s that last part that defines this film as horror, for me. That “daring” he speaks of. The film is haunting and uncomfortable; unconventional for a horror film, sure, but a horror film through and through as it succeeds in deconstructing the genre to its absolute core, and doing what all good horror films should do: displace the viewer.

Like all great Bergman films he utilizes sound (or the lack thereof) so brilliantly that it makes you squirm; there’s nothing more uncomfortable then sitting in silence, and Bergman often has his characters watch or react or briefly state something while the wind whooshes by or the sound of the breakers hitting the rocks roars in the background – the sound of an uneasy God, perhaps. This is nothing new if you’ve experienced any Bergman before, and as odd as it may sound his horror film actually shares a lot of attributes with the many of our top ten choices (which also see silence as an asset in horror). There’s a brilliant, tense scene early on where Johan sits and looks at a watch and makes his wife experience how long a minute is. Only Bergman could make something like this intense and frightening as we see Johan begin to splinter.

Hour of the Wolf is also a film where master cinematographer Sven Nykvist does some of his best work. Here is a film that is a perfect example of how paradoxical black and white photography can be as we have a plethora of images that are all at once beautiful and insanely eerie and displacing. It’s precisely why I refer to the film’s aesthetic above as unreal; the aforementioned scene of Johan murdering a boy is shot in a way that is jarring, yes, but it’s also never quite made clear whether or not this is something that he actually acted on, or just something he’s wrestled with internally since childhood. This has always been one of my five favorite films that Nykvist ever shot, and sadly I think that it’s one of his least recognized.

Horror is a genre that lends itself to a wide breadth, and Bergman maneuvered within that large space better than any other non-traditional horror filmmaker.  The films I mentioned in the opening paragraph would never be considered horror films upon first mention, but if you begin to explicate the darker themes of Bergman further it’s easy to see how these films could be classified as horror films. Horror is all about preying on our fears, and one of the most universal fears is that of loneliness – of isolation – and no filmmaker understand this basic fear better than Ingmar Bergman.


  1. Yes indeed Kevin. Bergman uses silences to maximum effect, and I love the opening of your review using the "definition" the the hour of the wolf. That always creeped me out. Bergman was very disatisfied with this film (especially as it followed PERSONA)and a number of critics have always found it uneven. It's one of his most overtly surrealistic films, and there's no question it falls under the category of horror.

    A great review, but a bonafide Bergman deciple. I'm with you there!

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