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The films of Ingmar Bergman are an entity unto themselves, often polarizing film aficionados and confusing ardent movie lovers. At times, his direction can be very straightforward (seeThe Virgin Spring), and at other times he can be the most perplexing and unfathomable of artists (see Persona). Hour of the Wolf, Bergman’s only horror film, lies in the middle of that continuum. It is a conventional horror film in as much as his other films are conventional dramas … and if you’re at all familiar with Ingmar, you’ll probably recognize that this doesn’t mean much.
In Hour of the Wolf, Bergman again works with two of his favorite actors: Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullman. The film opens with Liv Ullman sitting outside the island cottage where most of the film takes places. She tells us of how her and her husband came to the windy island and gives a compelling reason why: her husband Johan had grown quite uneasy in the creative process and always seemed frightened, “as if he was afraid of the dark.” The rest of the film is quite complex structurally, moving back and forth between Alma speaking to the audience and the main narrative taking place outside of this direct conversation.
Whereas many of his films are about the vertical struggle between man and God, Bergman’s horror film is about the struggle with self and the pent-up desires that can become deadly when untempered. The Hour of the Wolf (Vertgimmen in Swedish), as explained by Von Sydow in the film, is the hour between night and dawn. It is the hour when the sleepless are consumed by their innermost afflictions, the hour when supernatural forces of evil become most powerful. It is at this time of night that Johan reveals his dreams to his quiet and caring wife. When Johan is outside painting during the day, Alma reads his journal and is disturbed by his dreams and visions, both told and untold. Given the content of these dreams, many wives would horrified enough to pack up and leave, but Alma’s care and concern for Johan’s well-being keeps her with him even in his affliction. Her commitment is a ray of light protruding through the all-encompassing darkness of Johan’s soul.
One of the most horrifying things about Hour of the Wolf is the way it skirts the line between reality and hallucination. Midway into the film, there is a scene in which Alma and Johan are invited to dinner at a castle on the island which many island residents call their home. Bergman’s camera moves in a circle around the dinner table like a ghost, each time bearing witness to more anxiety in the main character’s countenance. Clearly, this scene is really happening, but the oppressive glances and confining atmosphere charge it with an unrelenting aura of unease. After dinner, the host takes his guests into the living room for a small puppet show set to a quiet aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute. The results are not loud or “scary” in the traditional sense. Even so, knowing what is brewing inside Johan and Alma coupled with classic Bergman close-ups of all the strange occupants of the castle make it more horrifying than a cheap “jump-scene.”
When watching Ingmar Bergman’s cinema, it is easy to gather that he made films directly out of what he was experiencing in his personal life at the given moment. In The Seventh Seal, the knight questions life, death, and the existence of God with considerable trepidation.The Virgin Spring came later, a film where the main male character falls on his knees and shouts to God that he does not understand His ways, but will serve him anyway. In Hour of the Wolf, Bergman is unconcerned with God but instead riffs on everything that he hates about himself as a man personally, sexually, and socially. Such dark subject matter can be as horrifying as monsters and serial killers combined and work to make Hour of the Wolf a film that is truly and undoubtedly scary.