Set Your Clock for Hour of the Wolf (1968)

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To view Hour of the Wolf click here.

It’s still a bit of a kept secret that almost every great world director from the 1960s and 1970s made a horror film at some point. Fellini and Malle did it. So did Kubrick. And, yes, Ingmar Bergman has one, too, even if you don’t count the supernatural eeriness of Fanny and Alexander (1984) or the harrowing revenge tale The Virgin Spring (1960). I’m talking about Hour of the Wolf (1968), an often overlooked tangent in between his bigger and more traditionally dramatic arthouse hits, Persona (1966) and Shame (1968), which stars two of his most reliable and powerful repertory members, Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullmann. This was one of seven features the stars made together, though only three were for Bergman.

Hour of the Wolf, or Vargtimmen in Swedish, also happens to be one of the granddaddies of the “isolated artist/writer loses his mind” subgenre of horror film, a now-storied tradition that includes The House that Dripped Blood (1971), Seizure (1974), The Shining (1980) and Secret Window (2004). Here Von Sydow has the honors as Johan, who lives on a remote island with pregnant wife Alma (Ullmann). We know from the start that something terrible has happened since Johan has gone missing with only his diaries and his wife’s memories delivered to the camera as evidence he lived there, and we soon come to learn that he was perpetually haunted by nightmarish visions during the title hour – the darkest, deepest time of night when, according to Bergman, the highest number of people are born and die. (More poetically, “It is the hour when most people die, when sleep is deepest, when nightmares are more real.”) Johan draws the various apparitions that plague him, who look like people except for unnerving habits like removing their faces and eyeballs. He’s also accosted by an aggressive art critic and seems drawn to an enigmatic baron on the other side of the island, where strange denizens like to congregate.

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Originally pitched to Ullmann (who actually gave birth during production) in very different form under the title The Cannibals (which lacked the pregnancy angle and many other elements), Hour of the Wolf (which you can watch here on The Criterion Channel) was always intended to be a horror film by Bergman, who referred to it as a vampire film on several occasions. That said, these aren’t Hammer-style vampires but psychic bloodsuckers who usurp the imagination and personality of our protagonist, and who are even framed in with bat-like fluttering dark birds to hammer the idea home. Even today there’s some resistance to overlapping horror and art films, an irresistible combination to some viewers but a maddening collision for others. Just witness the divisive and sometimes overtly hostile reactions to recent films like The Witch (2016), It Follows (2014), It Comes at Night (2017) or The Babadook (2014) and it’s easier to understand why this film confounded so many critics and viewers when it opened. How do you reconcile the easily debunked stereotypical view of Bergman as a strictly angst-ridden meditator on the human condition when he makes a film with supernatural creatures and people walking up walls?

One of Bergman’s skills that doesn’t get noted nearly enough is his delicate attention to sound. His films don’t make an aggressive use of music or sound effects most of the time, but he has an uncanny knack for getting under your skin with these enormous gulfs of silence that slowly become filled with natural sounds that nevertheless feel divorced from reality through the level of the sound mix and the delicate textured layering that fills the soundtrack. An obvious example would be the dream sequences from Wild Strawberries (1957), a clear dry run for the reality-upending sequences here; however, the jarring use of laughter, muttering voices and jolting slams and cracks owes perhaps more to the dynamic work heard in Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), a master class in frightening the viewer through layer after layer of sound spackled into something capable of raising the hairs on the back of your neck. Just take a listen to Julie Harris’s famous “whose hand was I holding” scene or her ascent up the shaky library staircase, and it’s clear that these two films are definitely aesthetic cousins.

Anyone afraid that this kind of approach to sound might be a lost art will surely be encouraged by one of the biggest artistic bombs to hit the pop culture world this year, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s revival of Twin Peaks, which has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the line between the big and small screens has been essentially evaporated. As of this writing, we’re on a two-week hiatus after the online world was set ablaze by the series’s game-changing eighth episode, a mostly monochromatic nightmare whose ear-blasting Penderecki music, apocalyptic avant-garde visuals, disappearing and materializing intruders from another dimension and refusal to play by normal narrative rules keeps you constantly disoriented in the most rewarding way. I’m not sure anyone will program that episode back to back with this film, but you’ll find kindred spirits between Lynch’s and Bergman’s direction; look no further than Hour of the Wolf’s decision to blast its title in the viewer’s face at the 46-minute mark or the goosebump-raising emergence of huge wings behind one character, and you’ll see that the world of Agent Cooper and company has been brewing in the global consciousness for a very long time.

In an odd footnote, Bergman originally premiered the film with additional wraparound segments showing him directing the film and then dismantling it after completion; however, he thought the film worked better without the extra self-reflexive commentary and cut this out before the general release. You can still hear remnants of that idea over the opening credits, which feature Bergman’s verbal directions buried in a cacophony of set construction. Bergman offered varying explanations for that artistic choice over the years, usually claiming that the material was so personal that he had to distance himself a bit during the writing and editing process. Ultimately he decided to spare the viewer little and make the story as immediate as possible; that was the right call, surely, but I’d love to see that earlier cut someday if it ever gets shown. Even with this editorial pruning, the film was a tough sell for the poor English-language distributors including American arthouse specialists Lopert Pictures. Their trailer features a narrator who pitches this as “a diary of truths and lies like truths,” which probably wasn’t even convincing to the copy editor who wrote it. Then again, it doesn’t seem like any combination of words could really do this film justice in 90 seconds. Just watch it and find out for yourself.

Nathaniel Thompson

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