Films That Haunt Me: HOUR OF THE WOLF

Today we venture into the infamous mind of Ingmar Bergman. Known mostly for his psychological dramas like “The Seventh Seal” and “Persona,” Bergman did indeed make one (ONE) horror film in his career, allegedly his most personal work. This film is christened HOUR OF THE WOLF (Vargtimmen).

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Like most of Bergman’s films in the 60s and 70s, this one is set on a remote Swedish island and details the mental breakdown of visual artist Johan (Bergman veteran Max von Sydow)…but this breakdown turns out to be contagious, as his wife Alma (also veteran and muse Liv Ullman) begins to suspect that his delusions are more than mere figments.

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After Alma finds a notebook of outlining the identities of her husband’s demons – nightmarish things including a 200-year-old faceless woman and a crow-man – Alma and Johan are invited to a castle full of grotesque aristocrats who love Johan’s work. From here, their world begins to unravel – affairs come to light, the aristocrats won’t leave them alone, and Johan’s demons begin to come out in the daytime. And when the Hour of the Wolf (3 am) comes… let’s just say no one goes crazy like a Swedish artist.

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It’s no secret that Bergman is a genius with both the psychologies of his characters and the poetry of his visuals, and these two things always complement each other. “Hour of the Wolf” displays his strengths in brutal force. (It was made as a companion piece to the great thriller “Persona,” which is evident in many ways.) It’s a shame that he didn’t make more horror films – the images in this one are so singularly horrific that, when paired with a nightmarish story of mental failure, they sear into the viewer’s brain forever. I haven’t seen this film in a while, but I can still visualize these scenes in vivid detail because of how much they disturbed me. Bergman always makes it difficult to forget his images, but here, he’s ruthless.

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What makes the film so enjoyable, as well, is its use of Gothic tropes – the dark castle on the deserted island, a rich family of insane people, demons that may or may not be real; it’s all here, rendered brilliantly in Sven Nykvist’s top-notch camerawork. These tropes are elevated, of course, by Bergman’s filmmaking; but they are not disrespected, either. While not frightening by today’s terms and bearing a cruelly elusive ending, “Hour of the Wolf” is undeniably a horror film. It adheres to the more old-fashioned definition of the genre: to cause a feeling of unease and terror. In the deepest, most psychological way, Bergman does this and does it without mercy.

For this reason, viewers cannot come into this film expecting a traditional spook story. It’s demanding and challenging, and does not give up its secrets easily. (What Bergman film does, though?) With a more open and focused mindset, “Hour of the Wolf” easily becomes one of the strangest and most unnerving horror films of the 1960s. On a chilly, windy night, when the clock strikes that dark hour, there’s no better choice.

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