Hour of the Wolf begins outside a modest cottage. A table rests in the foreground, supporting a basket of apples and a cutting board. A gnarled, twisted tree grows beside the shack door, its branches waiting to grasp anyone who gets too close. A woman slowly emerges from the door, and somberly sits at the table. This is Alma (played by the ever-luminous Liv Ullmann) who begins to tell us of her husband Johan (Max von Sydow, of course), a moderately successful artist. The pair come to this island occasionally to enjoy the isolation it affords them—or affords Johan, at any rate. He is insular and insomniac, plagued by nightmares and vivid visions. Or are they memories?
Hour of the Wolf may seem a peculiar choice for a “Blind Spot” essay—believe you me, I have bigger Blind Spots staring me down. (And I stare right back at them all, assuring them, “One day guys…”.) But Ingmar Bergman is one of those towering, canonical directors whose entire filmography is basically required. “You mean you haven’t seen The Virgin Spring? C’mon, dude—it’s Bergman!” And as it is that time of year, I thought I’d shoot for a dark horror flick that didn’t have a Roman numeral in its title.
Many Bergman films brush up against horror tropes, whether in plot or theme, most notably Persona with its eerie, heightened style. But Hour of the Wolf is the only Bergman that goes balls-out into the genre. Not that the movie is ever anything less than a Bergman film; he doesn’t adopt the conventions of mainstream horror, with its shock moments, fantastical creatures, heavy violence. Bergman manages to craft a film that doesn’t merely shock, but manages to horrify—a much more difficult feat that you think more horror films, given the name of the genre, would aim towards. It’s always refreshing to see a filmmaker use cleverly devious cinematic tricks to frighten an audience. Many directors can only get a rise out of people with a loud musical flourish or sudden burst of unanticipated action, but those moments are fleeting and usually unmemorable.
The sense of unease begins with that first shot of Alma, sitting in front of the cottage. “Johan was somewhat restless,” she says of her husband in sad, nearly hushed tones. “He always was when work didn’t go well for him and it hadn’t gone well lately. He slept very badly. He was afraid. Afraid of the dark. He had become even worse recently…” Alma delivers these words straight into the camera.
Normally I can’t stand films where characters directly address the audience. This can be an effective way for a director to introduce us to an idiosyncratic world as in Fight Club or Mary Poppins, to build a rapport with a character as in High Fidelity or numerous Woody Allen films, or to recursively distance us from what’s happening on screen and remind us that we’re just watching a movie as in Funny Games. More often, it’s just lazy.
Bergman uses the practice in a very interesting way. After Alma’s initial monologue, no one again directly addresses the audience through the camera (until the very end). But Bergman blocks many scenes so that characters talk or indicate very nearly right at us. Consider the haunting scene where Alma’s husband keeps her awake to endure the title hour with him. “There was a time when the nights were for sleeping. Deep, dreamless sleep. To sleep and wake unafraid. ‘The Hour of the Wolf’ …is the hour when most people die, when most children are born. Now is when nightmares come to us…” He relates a horrendous incident from his childhood when, as a punishment, he was locked in a dark wardrobe. His parents had told him that “a little man lived in that wardrobe, and he could gnaw the toes off naughty children.” Alma is in profile during this speech, but Johan is facing the camera so we cannot miss the ache and terror of the memory.
It is also in this scene that we experience the film’s most disturbing passage: an admission of murder by Johan that strikes with such stunning force, its sting resonates throughout the picture. Johan motions to some scars on his neck. “Those aren’t from a snakebite, as I told you,” he tells Alma. In a flashback, we see Johan on a break from painting, fishing on a precariously rocky shore. Nykvist overexposes the image so the stark sunlight seems to burn everything in the frame. A barely-clothed, pre-pubescent boy appears over the rocks. As Johan reels in his fishing line, the boy comes to stand behind him. From the angle, it seems almost that the boy is about to push Johan off onto the rocks below. Bergman holds this shot until the intensity is almost unbearable—but then the boy simply walks away, and goes to lie out in the sun. Johan notices the boy lie down in a provocative pose that, to me, disturbingly recalls Sue Lyon in Lolita. This seems to infuriate Johan, who storms over to the boy and begins to shake him violently. Bergman drains the dialogue from the soundtrack so we can only guess at what Johan is so viciously shouting. When the boy reflexively tries biting Johan on the back of the neck, Johan dashes the boy’s head with a sharp rock.
What does this signify? The barely clad boy should be enough on its own to cause discomfort (I sincerely hope), but why does Bergman have him in lewd and suggestive poses? Is this to signify some imperative moral crisis in Johan’s psyche? Some dark Freudian history? Perhaps the boy simply represents innocence and youthful inhibition, which Johan, misunderstanding, sadistically shatters. Honestly, I haven’t gotten to the bottom of this scene yet, so if you have any ideas, please tell me. All I can say for sure is that the scene left me feeling slightly sick for the rest of the picture.
But let us return to the theme of the characters watching the audience. Consider the sequence when Alma and Johan dine at the baron’s castle on the other side of the island. After the meal, the baroness shows the pair a painting in her master bedroom. It is one of Johan’s paintings, as it happens—unfortunately for Alma, a rather large one of Johan’s former lover, Veronica (Ingrid Thulin). We never see the canvas, rather we see the room from the canvas’s point of view. When the characters look upon the work with disgust or embarrassment, they seem to be looking at us with those negative emotions.
The cumulative effect of all these characters staring so intensely towards the camera is unsettling. One of the agreements between film characters and their audience is that the audience gets permission to look—wherever they wish at whatever they want. Directors have ways to direct one’s gaze to various places within the frame, but you can still look anywhere in the frame you really want to. Having so many characters stare back so intently, so often, is subtly disconcerting. That Bergman so frequently puts his audience in the position of being the gazed upon instead of the gazer can make one fretful, even if you don’t consciously pick up on what he’s doing. It is analogous to the way Kubrick subtly plays with spatial perceptions in The Shining to provoke unease in his viewers. It isn’t immediately obvious that what we see of the Overlook Hotel is physically impossible, with its doors that open to varying locations, or impossible windows. Yet it affects us just the same.
Sven Nykvist’s photography is beautiful, as always, and enormously helpful in establishing the film’s mood. Utilizing a higher-contrast black-and-white than normal, with dramatic chiaroscuro, the night scenes especially reminded me of the ethereal other-worldliness of silent films. Bergman has always been fascinated by the human face, and its ability to serve as a window into pain and sublimity, but here he adds that element of his faces looking at us. (Note: it is impossible to appreciate the cinematography via the atrocious transfers currently available for streaming on Netflix and Amazon Instant. If you can, try to see the film some other way.)
The end of the film descends into a paranoid, Polanskiesque fantasia of the absurd. I wouldn’t dream of ruining it for you, but it involves walking on the ceiling, a woman peeling her face off, and a bizarre public sex ritual. If you’ve seen Rosemary’s Baby or, more precisely, The Tenant, you’ll have an idea what to expect. Does it really happen? Is it all in Johan’s mind? Either way, how does Alma know about it, as she is ostensibly relating everything to us? Who is really the insane one in the film? Like any great movie, Hour of the Wolf leaves you with more than you bring into it, ensuring that it burrows its way into your head and can’t leave. Hour of the Wolf has been described by some critics (like Leonard Maltin) as minor Bergman; it’s hard not to agree, but minor Bergman still towers over most other films. And in the horror genre, even a minor Bergman becomes an instant, bona fide classic.