International Horror Film Review: Hour of the Wolf (dir by Ingmar Bergman)

An Ingmar Bergman horror film?

Indeed.  Despite the fact that Bergman’s bleak imagery and existential themes undoubtedly influenced any number of horror filmmakers (Wes Craven’s Last House On The Left was essentially a remake of Bergman’s The Virgin Spring), the 1968 film, Hour Of The Wolf was Ingmar Bergman’s only official horror film.

Of course, it’s also an Ingmar Bergman film, which means that it’s also a meditation on relationships, regret, the difficult of ever knowing what’s truly going on inside someone else’s head, and the artificiality of the artistic process.  It tells the story of a painter named Johan Borg (Max Von Sydow) and his pregnant wife, Alma (Liv Ullman) and their life on an isolated island.  Alma is worried about Johan’s feelings towards his former muse and ex-lover, Veronica Vogler.  Johan is haunted by nightmarish visions of menacing figures and the feelings that demons are pursuing him.

The film opens with a title card, informing us that the story that we’re about to see is true and that it’s an attempt to reconstruct the final days of Johan’s life before his mysterious disappearance.  Of course, as anyone who has seen enough found footage films can tell you, the title card is a lie and there never was a painter named Johan Borg, or at least not one who mysteriously vanished while living in an isolated house on an island.  Instead of being meant to convince us that we’re about to see a true story, the title card instead establishes that what we’re about to see can be considered to almost be a dark fairy tale.  The title card is the film’s way of saying, “Once Upon A Time…..”  It’s also a reminder that most fairy tales are considerably more grim than what those of us raised on Disney might expect.

(No coincidentally, the title Hour of the Wolf came from Swedish folk lore.  The Hour of the Wolf is the time between 3 and 5 in the morning, during which it is said that most births and deaths occur.)

While the opening credits flash by on a dark screen, we hear the sounds of men working and anyone who has any experience in theater will immediately realize that we’re listening to a set being built.  As the opening credits come to an end, we hear Bergman shouting out, “Action!”  Our next shot is Alma standing outside of the house that she shared with Johan.  Alma looks straight at the camera as she tells us that she still doesn’t know what happened to Johan.  She tells the unseen Bergman that she’s revealed to him everything that she knows.

It’s an interesting opening, one that reminds the audience that what they’re seeing is merely a recreation of what might have happened on Johan and Alma.  When Alma speaks to Bergman, there’s an interesting subtext to her words and her tone and one gets the feeling that Alma and the director are meant to have a history of their own.  It’s almost as if the film is saying that the story’s meaning can only be found in what we can’t see, in what’s going on behind the camera.  That seems especially true when you consider that, when Hour of the Wolf was filmed, Liv Ullman, who played the pregnant Alma, actually was pregnant with Bergman’s child and that Bergman himself later said that Johan Borg’s nightmares were recreations of Bergman’s own nightmares.  It’s perhaps a little too easy to imagine that the demons that inspire Johan’s art are the same demons that inspired Bergman’s films and that this film is both an apology to Ullman for his own neurotic tendencies and a tribute to her willingness to put up with him.

Hour of the Wolf is a bleakly effective film, one that works as both a dissection of an unstable relationship and a portrait of a man who may be losing his mind.  Von Sydow plays the haunted Johan as a charismatic but introverted artist, a troubled individual who can only truly express what’s happening in his mind through his art.  Indeed, Johan’s tragedy seems to be that the joy he gets from creating can only come from the pain that he suffers from imagining and dreaming.  Ullman is heart-breaking as she tries to keep her husband from succumbing to his own darkness while, at the same time, trying not to get sucked into the darkness herself.  About halfway through the film, Johan confesses to committing a shocking crime and, like Alma, you don’t know whether to believe him or to believe that he’s reached the point where he can’t tell the difference between reality and his nightmares.  Ullman plays the scene with the perfect combination of fear and sadness, sympathy and revulsion.  As for Von Sydow, he brings to life both the natural arrogance of an artist and the terror of someone who suspects that he has no control over his own existence.

Visually, this film is bleak by even the standards of Bergman.  The black-and-white cinematography plays up not just the shadows of the night but also the brutal desolation of Johan and Alma’s life on the island.  It reminds us that Johan is an artist living in a world without color.  Bergman views Johan and Alma through a detached lens, recording the collapse of their lives but, at the same time, keeping his distance as if to protect the audience from getting trapped inside of Johan’s madness.

Hour of the Wolf may have been Ingmar Bergman’s only official horror film but it’s definitely an effective thriller, one that manages to explore both Bergman’s signature themes while also keeping the audience off-balance and wondering what might be lurking in the darkness.  It may not be one of Bergman’s “best-known” films but it’s definitely one for which to keep an eye out.

Scenes That I Love: Max Von Sydow Meets Death In The Seventh Seal

The Seventh Seal (1957, directed by Ingmar Bergman)

I had a bit of a panic attack earlier today when I logged onto twitter and I discovered that everyone was both sharing picture of the great actor Max Von Sydow and debating which one of his many roles was his best.

“Oh my God!” I thought, “Max von Sydow must have died!  2018 sucks now!”

I looked over at the trending topics and, to my shock, Max von Sydow was not trending.  However, Mark Zuckerberg was.

“Goddammit,” I thought, “Mark Zuckerberg is totally overshadowing the legendary career of one of the most important actors of all time!”

I was prepared to take advantage of the no-filter atmosphere of twitter and start screaming at people for not showing the proper respect to the life and legacy of Max von Sydow.  Fortunately, before I totally lost my temper, I decided to make sure that my assumptions were correct.  That’s something that I rarely do but I’m certainly glad that I did it this time because, by doing so, I discovered that Max von Sydow was not dead.

Instead, today was his 89th birthday!

Happy birthday, Max von Sydow!

What is Max von Sydow’s greatest role?  There’s so many to choose from.  He’s got a whole new legion of fans as a result of his appearances in last two Star Wars films.  Considering that he’s been an outspoken agnostic, it’s somewhat ironic that his first English-language role was as Jesus Christ in The Greatest Story Ever Told and that he epitomized everyone’s idea of the ideal priest in The Exorcist.  He’s played assassins, saints, and intellectuals.  He’s twice been nominated for an Oscar.  When I asked my boyfriend for his pick for Max von Sydow’s greatest performance, he picked the Emperor Ming in Flash Gordon.  Speaking of famous villains, von Sydow also played Blofield in Never Say Never Again and let’s not forget the assassin he played in Three Days of the Condor or his role in Minority Report or his performance as Leland Gualt in Needful Things!  And what about his performance in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly or his Emmy-nominated turn in Game of Thrones

Well, I could sit here and spend hours listing great Max von Sydow performances.  But, when talking about the career of Max von Sydow, you have to start with the films of Ingmar Bergman.  And when you talk about Bergman and von Sydow, you have to start with 1957’s The Seventh Seal.

(Some sites claim that The Seventh Seal was von Sydow’s film debut but that’s not true.  It may have been his first film for Bergman but von Sydow actually made his screen debut in 1949.  Before finding film stardom, von Sydow dominated the Swedish stage.)

In honor of both Max von Sydow’s 89th birthday and his amazing career, today’s scene that I love is from The Seventh Seal.  This haunting and atmospheric film is one that you definitely should see if you haven’t see it already.  Here von Sydow’s knight first meets Death (Bengt Ekerot*) and settles in for a game of chess.

Happy birthday, Max von Sydow!


*While Bengt Ekerot never went on to achieve the type of international fame that von Sydow did, his performance here set the archetype of how Death, as a character, continues to be portrayed in books and films to this day.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Emigrants (dir by Jan Troell)

(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1972 best picture nominee, The Emigrants!)

Since I’m currently dealing with either a really bad cold or the onset of the flu (let’s hope that it’s the former), I decided that Monday would be the perfect night to stay up extremely late and watch a 190-minute Swedish movie.

The Emigrants was released in Sweden in 1971 and it received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.  Then, it was released in the United States in 1972 and it managed to receive four more Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture.  The Emigrants was the third foreign language film to be nominated for Best Picture, the first film to be nominated in multiple years, and also the first Swedish film to contend for the Academy’s top prize.  (The following year, Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers would also become the second Swedish film nominated for Best Picture.)  At the same time that The Emigrants was nominated for Best Picture, its sequel, The New Land, was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.  1972 was an interesting year.

The Emigrants opens in 1844, in Sweden.  Karl Oskar (Max Von Sydow) has married Kristina (Liv Ullmann).  Like his father before him, Karl Oskar is a farmer.  It’s an exhausting life.  There is never enough food to eat.  The weather is perpetually gloomy.  The harvest is always disappointing.  As poor farmers, Karl Oskar and his family face constant prejudice.  In Sweden, the only thing more corrupt than the government is the church.  After one of his daughters starves to death, what choice does Karl Oskar and his family have other than to escape to America?

As Karl Oskar’s brother, Robert (Eddie Axberg), explains, the best rice comes from the Carolinas.  The best farmland is in America.  In America, anyone can become rich.  Anyone can walk up to the President and talk to him without running the risk of being imprisoned or executed.  (In 1844, ordinary citizens could stop by the White House and make an appointment to see the President.  This, of course, would change decades later, after a disgruntled office seeker shot President Garfield.)  In America, Robert says excitedly, no one works more than 14 hours a day!  Even slaves can own land and make their own money!

The Emigrants deals with their Karl Oskar and his family’s voyage to America.  Karl Oskar and Kristina do not travel alone.  Kristina’s uncle (Allan Edwall) is with them and hopes that, in America, he will be allowed to freely practice his religious beliefs.  A former prostitute, Ulrika (Monica Zetterlund), is also with them, hoping a new land will mean a better life for both herself and her daughter.  Even Robert’s best friend, Arvid (Pierre Lindstedt), going with them.  It’s not an easy journey.  Not everyone survives the voyage to North America but those that do soon find themselves in a young and untouched country where anything seems to be possible.

Swedish cinema has a reputation for being dark and brooding but those are two words that definitely do not apply to The Emigrants, which is about as positive a portrait of America as you could ever hope to see.  Regardless of whatever tragedy may occur during the journey, this movie leaves no doubt that the journey was more than worth it.  It unfolds at a pace that is perhaps a bit too leisurely but, at the same time, it’s also an achingly pretty movie with shots that bring to mind the best of Terrence Malick.  In fact, there are times when the film is almost too pretty.  It’s possible to get so caught up in looking at all the beauty around Karl Oskar and Kristina that you lose track of the story.  Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullmann are both achingly pretty as well and, even more importantly, they’re believable as a married couple who are often equally in love and equally annoyed with each other.

It was interesting to go from watching The Grapes of Wrath to watching The Emigrants.  If The Grapes of Wrath was an American nightmare, The Emigrants is about as pure a celebration of the American Dream as you’re going to find.  It lost the Oscar for Best Picture to a far different film about the immigrant experience in America, The Godfather.

The LAFCA embraces Call Me By Your Name!

Awards season continues with the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.  Here are their picks for the best of 2017!

PICTURE: “Call Me by Your Name”
Runner-up: “The Florida Project”

DIRECTOR: Guillermo del Toro, “The Shape of Water” and Luca Guadagnino, “Call Me by Your Name” (tie)

ACTOR: Timothée Chalamet, “Call Me by Your Name”
Runner-up: James Franco, “The Disaster Artist”

ACTRESS: Sally Hawkins, “The Shape Of Water”
Runner-up: Frances McDormand, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

SUPPORTING ACTOR: Willem Dafoe, “The Florida Project”
Runner-up: Sam Rockwell, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Laurie Metcalf, “Lady Bird”
Runner-up: Mary J. Blige, “Mudbound

SCREENPLAY: Jordan Peele, “Get Out”
Runner-up: Martin McDonagh, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

ANIMATION: “The Breadwinner”
Runner-up: “Coco”

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: “BPM” (Beats Per Minute) and “Loveless” (tie)

Runner-up: “Jane”


FILM EDITING: Lee Smith, “Dunkirk”
Runner-up: Tatiana S. Riegel, “I, Tonya”

CINEMATOGRAPHY: Dan Laustsen, “The Shape of Water”
Runner-up: Roger Deakins, “Blade Runner 2049

PRODUCTION DESIGN: Dennis Gassner, “Blade Runner 2049
Runner-up: Paul D. Austerberry, “The Shape of Water”

MUSIC/SCORE: Jonny Greenwood, “Phantom Thread”
Runner-up: Alexandre Desplat, “The Shape of Water”



A Movie A Day #327: The Ultimate Warrior (1976, directed by Robert Clouse)

The year is 2012 and New York City, like the rest of the world, has been devastated by energy shortages, wars, and a great plague.  The few survivors now live in isolated communes and are easily victimized by roving gangs of marauders.  (On the plus side, this version of New York City has been spared Bill de Blasio.)  The Baron (Max von Sydow) has managed to keep his people safe by ruling with an iron hand but he knows that it will only be a matter of time until his commune is overrun by the psychotic Carrot (William Smith) and his men.  When a mysterious warrior known only as Carson (Yul Brynner) comes to the commune, the Baron tasks him with a very important mission: help his pregnant daughter (Joanna Miles) escape from New York City and transport both her and some genetically modified seeds to an island in North Carolina.

Despite being an obviously low-budget production, with studio backlots unconvincingly filling in for a deserted New York, The Ultimate Warrior is an entertaining post-apocalyptic action movie.  Yul Brynner was nearly 60 years old when he played Carson but he still had the intense stare that made him so menacing in Westworld and he still looked credible in the fight scenes.  William Smith was one of the best B-movie villains of the 70s and, as usual, Max Von Sydow brought a lot of gravity to his role.  Best known for directing Enter The Dragon, Robert Clouse was an action specialist and the fight scenes in The Ultimate Warrior are both exciting and realistic.  For those looking for a good post-apocalyptic action movie, keep an eye out for The Ultimate Warrior.

A Movie A Day #226: Citizen X (1995, directed by Chris Gerolmo)

How do you solve a crime in a society that refuses to admit that crime exists?

That is the dilemma faced by Viktor Burakov (Stephen Rea) in the fact-based film, Citizen X.  Burakov is a forensic expert in the Soviet Union.  In 1982, when a dead body is found on a collective farm, Burakov is assigned to investigate.  When seven more bodies are discovered, Burakov is convinced that he is dealing with a serial killer.  The problem is that the official Soviet position is that crime and, especially, serial murder are a product of western decadence.  With his superiors refusing to accept that a serial killer could be active in the USSR, Burakov is driven to the point of insanity as he both tries to stop the murders and keep his job.  Fortunately, he has the Machiavellian Col. Fetisov (Donald Sutherland) on his side but, even with Fetisov’s protection, Burakov is no closer to tracking down the murderer.

Citizen X is based on the crimes of Andrei Chikatilo.  From 1978 to 1990, Chikatilo committed at least 57 murders, with several of his victims being young children.  Though many were suspicious of him, Chikatilo was protected by both his membership in the Communist party and the government’s refusal to allow most of his crimes to be publicly reported.  It was only during the reforms of Perestroika that authorities were allowed to thoroughly investigate Chikatilo’s crimes.  Chikatilo was arrested in 1992 and executed, via a gunshot to the back of his head, in 1994.  In Citizen X, Chikatilo is played by Jeffrey DeMunn, who gives a very good and disturbingly plausible performance as the monstrous killer.

Made for HBO, Citizen X is a low-key but thought-provoking recreations of not just Chikatilo’s crimes but the atmosphere that allowed him to go undetected,  Along with DeMunn, both Rea and Sutherland give great performances.  (Sutherland won an Emmy.)  Max Von Sydow also appears, playing a psychologist who is given the unenviable task of trying to enter Chikatilo’s mind.

A Movie A Day #127: Brass Target (1978, directed by John Hough)

Everything’s a conspiracy!

At least, that is the claim made by Brass Target, a twisty and unnecessarily complicated thriller that argues that General George S. Patton (played here by George Kennedy, who is even more blustery than usual in the role) did not, as widely believed, die as the result of a car accident but was actually killed by an assassin using rubber bullets.  Why was Patton targeted for assassination?  Was he targeted by Nazis angered by Germany’s defeat or maybe Russians who knew that Patton had argued in favor of invading the Soviet Union towards the end of the war?  Would you believe it was all because Patton was investigating the theft of Nazi gold and his subordinates, the flamboyantly gay Colonel Donald Rogers (Robert Vaughn) and Rogers’s always worried lover, Colonel Walter Gilchrist (Edward Herrmann), were fearful that he was getting too close to discovering the truth?

John Cassevetes, who hopefully used part of his paycheck to fund either The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night, or Gloria, plays Joe De Lucca, the burned out OSS colonel who is assigned to track down the Nazi gold but who really just wants to go back home to New York.  Patrick McGoohan, sporting an accent that is supposed to be American, plays De Lucca’s former friend and colleague, Colonel Mike McCauley, who now lives in a German castle.  Max von Sydow is the assassin, who also has a day job as the chairman of a refugee relocation committee.  Sophia Loren plays Mara, a Polish war refugee who, by pure coincidence, has slept with not just De Lucca but almost everyone involved with the conspiracy.  Bruce Davison is the young colonel who acts as Du Lucca’s supervisor.  Even Charles “Lucky” Luciano (played by the very British Lee Montague) is featured as a minor part of the conspiracy.

That is an impressive cast for a less than impressive movie.  Brass Target never provides a convincing reason as to why the conspirators would decide that killing Patton was their only option and, once the conspiracy gets underway and the movie starts to follow around Von Sydow for some Day of the Jackal/Black Sunday-style preparation scenes, the search for the Nazi gold is forgotten.  For some reason, though, I have a soft spot for this frequently ridiculous movie.  There are enough weird moments and details, like Vaughn’s twitchy performance, McGoohan’s accent, the way Kennedy blusters about the Russians being rude to him, and glamorous Sophia Loren’s miscasting, that Brass Target is always watchable even if it is never exactly good.