DIRECTED BY: Ingmar Bergman
PLOT: An artist is haunted by memories of his past. While isolated on an island with his pregnant wife, his demons catch up to him. Madness and delusion creep deeper into his mind as a gang of mysterious island dwellers intervene in the couple’s life. A secret, scandalous affair surfaces, and when supernatural forces intervene, the couple’s relationship and sanity is strained.
WHY IT SHOULD’T MAKE THE LIST: This is a tough film to decipher. The ending is certainly weird, but the lead-up to that point is too ponderous and ambiguous. Bergman is a master and his lone foray into the horror genre is an excellent piece of film-making; his artistry in delving into the lower depths of the human psyche is better established in his other well-known masterpieces, however.
COMMENTS: The older I get, the more I appreciate Ingmar Bergman films. There is something about Swedish movies that encapsulates human existence like no other country. Scenes are left dangling on a thread waiting to snap. The slow, or still, images can verge on monotony, but are usually necessary to convey the pathos of the souls here. Sometimes watching scenes slowly transpire is the best way to fully grasp how life can unravel around us. A scene in this film actually plays out for an entire minute with the main character staring at his watch to express how even sixty seconds can feel like an eternity. Time can sometimes lay heavy on a burdened mind. What I’m trying to suggest here is that Bergman is amazing at capturing exactly what it means to be human. We sin and regret, yet we still long for penance and understanding. Even when our existence feels loathsome, it sure is nice to have someone else around to share in our misery. Modern Swedish director Roy Andersson (You, The Living) knows this as well and, like Bergman, his films are wrought with longing stares of sadness. Both Swedes capture these depressing moments and bring them alive with precise balance and well thought out execution. Even dialogue is matter-of-fact. Nothing said in their films seems to be unimportant or drivel; it’s as if there is always some deeper meaning.
Artists always seem to be the tortured soul of choice and Johan (von Sydow) is no exception. He broods and keeps himself distant from his wife Alma (Ullman). The couple attempt to find some happiness, but somewhere in the distance darkness looms. Alma yearns for his companionship as Johan maddeningly sketches grotesque characters onto paper. He shares his contempt for these figures that come flowing from his hand. He does not understand from where they arise, but they are vaguely familiar and disgust him in their hideous states. There is the “Birdman”, who may or may not be wearing a beaked mask, or the woman whose face comes off with the removal of her hat. As Alma scans his sketches, you can sense she is beginning to worry about his fragile mind. Early in the film a mysterious old woman on the island warns her to put an end to his drawings and to read his hidden diary. The request bewilders her, but she heeds the warning. As Alma reads through various diary excerpts, it becomes clear that Johan has led a very sordid life.
Aside from being tormented by his own art, Johan is stalked by other inhabitants on the not-so-secluded island. One yammering fool bugs Johan so much that he retaliates with violence. The relentless pestering of their neighbors eventually garners an invitation to a nearby castle for a soiree. Reluctantly, Johan accepts the invitation. All the while, his madness is spiraling further out of control, resulting in fearful, sleepless nights. He alludes to the title “Hour of the Wolf” as being an unspecific time between dusk and dawn when “ghosts and demons are most powerful…when most people die and when most children are born.” He is suffering from insomnia, but nightmares haunt him still.
Once the party scene at the castle begins the weirdness emerges. The guests are at once both amicable and creepy. Johan and Alma are ill at ease. The party-goers hover around them speaking of strange things as the camera pans the crowd in a dizzying manner. The atmosphere becomes claustrophobic and stifling, bringing to mind the end scenes in Rosemary’s Baby when Mia Farrow is ganged up on by her Satan-loving neighbors. These revelers seem even more menacing. What good castle party doesn’t have a surreal puppet show set to Mozart’s “The Magic Flute?” We get one here, and it’s a truly unsettling scene. After the uncomfortable first party comes to an end, a second invitation is extended to Johan to come to the castle alone. This time it is promised that his former mistress Veronica Volger, a demon from Johan’s past that he feels compelled to confront, will be in attendance. In the final scenes before they meet again, we witness just how cracked Johan has become.
The creepy “others” of the castle become the monsters of his drawings. They promise to reunite him with Veronica, but before they do they sprout bird wings; walk up walls and onto the ceiling; and “prophetically” peel off their face after removing a hat. Surprisingly horrific stuff from Bergman, who’s often dreamlike but never quite this nightmarish. If more of these weird images were scattered throughout earlier scenes, we definitely would have had a List-worthy movie here. Instead, we get about 15 minutes of weird goodies. I understand how we sometimes need to see the slow descent into madness, I just really wanted more. I immediately re-watched those final 15 minutes over again thinking to myself how bizarre and frightening it is. I have a feeling I’ll revisit the entire movie again soon, as I think it will become more rewarding with subsequent viewings. This is certainly a worthwhile venture into a very dark place.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Bergman penetrates the man’s subconscious to extract a series of bizarre nightmares and imaginations. He slips these hallucinations back and forth across the line of reality, so that occasionally what seems to be a dream becomes gruesomely real… we allow the images to slip past the gates of logic and enter the deeper levels of our mind, and if we accept Bergman’s horror story instead of questioning it, ‘Hour of the Wolf’ works magnificently. So delicate is the wire it walks, however, that the least hostility from the audience can push it across into melodrama.”–Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by reader “George.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)