Criterion Prediction #60: Hour of the Wolf, by Alexander Miller
Title: Hour of the Wolf
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Cast: Liv Ullmann, Max von Sydow, Gertrud Fridh, George Rydeberg, Erland Josephson
Synopsis: After an unidentified “crisis”, artist Johan Borg (Sydow) and his wife Alma (Ullmann) move to the small island of Baltrum to seek rest. Johan takes to painting but devolves into a temperamental insomniac after he claims to be visited by demons that frequent the countryside. Alma is also given pause when she is visited by a mysterious woman who encourages her to read Johan’s diary; she learns that his hellish visions also include representations of his former lover. As their time on the island grows more eerily intense, so does their encounters with the various ghoulish inhabitants.
Critique: It might sound odd that Ingmar Bergman, the foremost purveyor of gloomy, arthouse films was at his most clever and playful in what is widely considered a horror movie, standing out in a filmography of categorical ambiguity. Bergman’s proclivity for ghastly imagery wasn’t uncommon in his body of work, but effectively creepy moments were usually relegated to short dream sequences or fantasies. At this point in his career, Bergman’s finely-tuned character studies consolidated themselves from broader existential quandaries (The Seventh Seal, The Virgin Spring) to more intimate, introspective character studies (Winter Light, Persona) edging from the middle ages to the present day, with smaller casts and more personal material.
Bergman can wear the proverbial “auteur” badge with pride because it’s nearly impossible to pin a genre on his work, it’s obscured by his aesthetic identity which is so strong we just attach adjectives to his name (“Medieval Bergman, Contemporary Bergman”) in describing his movies. So what is it about Hour of the Wolf that makes it stand out as the director’s sole horror film?
Grounded and contemporary, the suspension of disbelief maintains even when surrealist imagery is off the walls and the fabric of the protagonists very thin reality is dissolving. The film opens with a preface that the narrative was cobbled together from Johan’s diaries and writings in direct contrast to the pre-title implications of a “true” story we can easily identify as film crew banter (“quiet on set, take one, action”) this ruse is a consistent reminder of the director’s filmic affectations and unguarded penchant for artifice . There’s a sly visual component to Bergman’s cinema, and that unadorned method of delivery is what makes his naturalistic brand of horror so effective.
Deterioration is very much a recurring role in Bergman’s cinema, and Max von Sydow’s frayed psychological tethers are terrifying in their own right, and Liv Ullmann is struggling to maintain a semblance of sanity for the both of them, almost abused by Johan’s insistence when he recalls the details of the various ghouls that haunt the barren island (Bergman’s beloved shooting locale and living space Fårö Island) they inhabit, with excruciating detail, appointing them nicknames in the process. The Hour of the Wolf is a unique interpretation of screen horror, and the dramatic reveals that we associate with its dramatic momentum. It feels as if Bergman is actualizing horror when Johan is literally telling us what lies around the corner, giving our imaginations something to feed off of while fully-realized moments of physical terror lurk on the horizon.
One glaring irony is Bergman’s reputation as an inaccessible purveyor of gloomy cinema, but his sense of humor and sporadic accessibility is visible in what could be alleged as his darkest film. Bergman reminds us at every available junction that we are watching a movie. A few images are directly culled from classic horror films; some critics even go as far as to call it a vampire film given one actor’s unsubtle likeness to Bela Lugosi. The modernist cocktail that comprises the Hour of the Wolf is partially the brainy sense of humor (the type that will likely elicit recognition laughter – the cineastes equivalent to nudging someone and mumbling “I get that!”) but this hindsight criticism doesn’t take away from the films credentials, but deflate the somewhat self serious nature of the directors work.
A master at unveiling the grotesque nature of the human seed, Bergman externalizes the otherwise esoteric subject of inner turmoil, materialized in genuinely unadorned and frightening visuals. The translation is simple, and Bergman’s recurring DP Sven Nykvist, whose shared penchant for surveying the human face augment the power of saturated black and white film to create a murky quagmire of ghastly compositions in the most unlikely film, from one of cinemas most consistent screen artists.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: Now why should I complain about the amount of Ingmar Bergman in the Criterion Collection? There’s not only an Eclipse Set (the first one mind you) dedicated to his early work, Criterion also hosts over a dozen official releases. But there’s a contingent of great work, arguably some of his best (discount clunky misfire The Serpent’s Egg) work held by MGM that Criterion couldn’t seem to break into, that is until March 2014 when Criterion released Bergman’s 1966 classic Persona. All of these titles (again, minus The Serpent’s Egg) are qualifiable Criterion Candidates, and seeing as they can distribute Persona let’s hope there’s equal opportunities for the rest of these titles.