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.