Remember when a couple posts ago I mentioned that Ingmar Bergman is one of my favorite directors ever? Well, Hour Of The Wolf is a pretty good example of why, since it is by no means one of his best films (I’d categorize it as third tier Bergman), and yet is both reasonably thought-provoking and an unmistakable product of this director’s consistently helpless vision of humanity. It also felt more like a horror movie than I was expecting (even if it falls into the category of psychological horror), and thus helped point out that due to the overwhelming grimness of a lot of Bergman’s films, you only need to tweak them a little bit over the edge into bonkers-ville in order for one of them to qualify as a horror movie.
Hour Of The Wolf begins with a long single shot of Anna (Liv Ullman), who starts talking to the audience directly about the mysterious disappearance of her husband, before we flashback and start to get an idea of the tension existing between this couple. We see that they’re living on a small island, while Anna’s husband, Johan Borg (played by who else but Max Von Sydow) is a painter who’s been suffering a fair amount of psychological trauma, due to his insomnia combined with the sneaking suspicion that the other people living on the island are demons or monsters or something (admittedly, they are pretty weird). One day Anna encounters one of these weirdos, an old woman who claims to be 216 years-old, but then redacts that, saying she’s just 76 (it happens). The old woman tells Anna to go looking through her husband’s diary, which Anna does, and in the process learns that Johan has been haunted by many people, including a lover named Veronica. The two of them then go to a party at one of their neighbor’s castles (eh, it’s Sweden), and Anna confronts Johan about the diary, which unleashes a whole bunch of other suppressed trauma, and let’s just say shit gets weird from there.
I guess I forgot to mention that Anna is pregnant, and for that (as well as the movie’s sense of paranoia), the Hour Of The Wolf‘s first half does bear more than a fair amount of resemblance to Rosemary’s Baby, which eerily enough came out the same year. There’s even a moment where Anna proclaims that she fears that evil will manifest itself in the baby, or something like that. However, the movie becomes very much less about the baby once Johan’s hallucinations take over, and it becomes more about his own fears in regards to the other adults in his life. Though there is a crucial flashback that happens about two-thirds in to the film that involves a violent encounter with a young boy, and could be read as a sign of Johan’s fears about fatherhood, combined with his obvious fears of being a decent husband.
As with all Bergman films, there’s plenty to unpack and dissect here, and I’m sure it would not be hard for me to sound like a pretentious idiot if I were to try and interpret exactly what this film is about. It’s not surprising that Hour Of The Wolf was the first film Bergman made after Persona, one of his true masterpieces and a film with a similarly claustrophobic bent. However, that film works quite a bit better I think because the relationship at the heart of that film is so well-defined, and yet has enough room to grow, that when things do get kind of bonkers in that film’s second half, it’s incredibly effective. The relationship at the heart of Hour Of The Wolf however, feels a little vague to me, and the fact that all of Johan’s psychological problems are similarly ill-defined makes the movie’s second half feel a little bit like an unmotivated series of weird imagery and heavy conversations (i.e. almost a parody of what people think of when they think of Bergman).
Granted, I will admit that a lot of this imagery is quite haunting (the cinematography was of course done by Bergman’s long-time collaborator Sven Nykvist), and the conversations have that signature Bergman helplessness, even if I’m not sure what this film is trying to say exactly. Overall, it feels a bit like an exercise in form, almost as if after pulling off the delicate balancing act of abstract psychosis and intense human drama that is Persona, Bergman was seeing how far he could bend this particular type of filmmaking. And I’m not saying Bergman necessarily bends it so far that it brakes, but he certainly bends it past a place of discernible reality, and I guess that’s what makes it a horror movie?