This film should have been the thirteenth in Criterion’s sublime collection Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema – and if we count Scenes from a Marriage as one work in two different formats, the numbers actually tally. Hour of the Wolf is an ominous, nightmarish work; in fact, I would go so far as to say that it is about the last thing I would have expected in the director’s oeuvre, an out-and-out horror film – though, this being Bergman, the horrors are not those of ghouls and ghosts, they are of the decidedly psychological kind.
Nonetheless: there are scenes of faces being pulled off and eyes floating in wine glasses. You’ve been warned.
Hour of the Wolf is a deeply unsettling film. Once again we find ourselves in the territory of a fraught marriage, and once again it features Liv Ullmann playing a character who is married to a troubled man called Johan. Like that other Johan and like so many other men in Bergman’s oeuvre, the one that Alma (Ullmann) is married to is a deeply neurotic man and wracked with feelings of inadequacy. Johan Borg (Max von Sydow) is a painter who careens towards some sort of breakdown while he and his wife are staying on the island of Baltrum. He tells Alma his bad dreams, and Alma soon finds herself visited by others on the island who seem to emerge from her husband’s dreams.
We’ve seen dreams and nightmares in Bergman before on our Nordic long-distance hike, especially in Wild Strawberries, but while these were unsettling, there was a clear distinction between them and the waking life of that film’s protagonist. Hour of the Wolf doesn’t do the polite thing, it doesn’t clearly delineate reality from fantasy, and its uncanny visitations aren’t confined to the mind of the man we see unravel. It is never quite clear if we are seeing visions, hallucinations, if they are the emanations of a mind slowly crumbling or if there is indeed something deeply wrong on Baltrum. While Hour of the Wolf is unmistakably Bergman, there are also echoes of US genre fiction, stylistic flourishes that recall films like Carnival of Souls (1962) (which, in turn, has nightmarish scenes that remind of Wild Strawberries) or John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966) (Hour of the Wolf uses deep focus in ways that are highly reminiscent of Frankenheimer’s use of the technique).
However, Hour of the Wolf isn’t only pointing back in time at other psychological horror, including Bergman’s own. There are scenes late in the film that foreshadow that later purveyor of bourgeois nightmares, David Lynch. It is surely no accident that Lynch picked, among other films, Hour of the Wolf for a sidebar at the 2010 AFI festival.
While I found Bergman’s foray into psychological horror fascinating, I could imagine some viewers being turned off by the violence that is startlingly visceral. We’ve seen bursts of violence in films placed earlier in the Criterion collection, but Hour of the Wolf features an extended scene culminating in a brutal murder – which may or may not be real, but this in no way lessens the impact of the harrowing scene.
In the end, though, it is the uncanny scenes that will stay with me most – the ominous figures that appear to have stepped outside Johan’s dreams with as much ease as we may step through our front door. If they can invade the reality of someone as grounded and real as Alma, what chance do we have to keep such terrors at bay?