It should come as no surprise that Ingmar Bergman can effectively create a ghostly and eerie atmosphere that feels naturalistic – relating to a particularly disturbed state of mind rather than any supernatural apparition. He had used various techniques to uncanny effect in early films such as The Seventh Seal, where Death walks incarnate alongside a troupe of wandering actors, in Wild Strawberries, where an old man encounters a premonition of death in a surrealist dream – right through to later films, as in Fanny and Alexander when the children encounter the mournful figure of their dead father. Similarly, Bergman films often plumb the depths of a mind disintegrating into madness, but no Bergman film explores a fractured state of mind to such nightmarish effect as Hour of The Wolf.
The aura of strangeness and horror is conjured immediately by the opening titles of the film relating how that the story to be told is based on the diary of an artist, Johan Borg (Max von Sydow), who mysteriously vanished into the woods. Johan’s wife, Alma (Liv Ullmann) - edgy and uncomfortable, relates directly to the camera the state of mind of the painter leading up to the events depicted in the film. Arriving on the small isolated island, Alma and Johan seem happy and in love – the painter fired up with artistic inspiration – but soon his spirits sink. Wandering around, he is assailed by the island’s strange inhabitants, who he depicts in his drawings as twisted deformities of animals. Alma, pregnant, is concerned about her husband’s deterioration, but she too sees the strange apparitions. In one of them, an old lady who at first claims to be 216 years old delivers a warning to Alma, advising her to read the diary Johan keeps with the drawings. Alma finds out events from Johan’s past that still seem to haunt his memory.
Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen) carries themes that are explored in many of the director’s earlier films and a visual style that presages the gothic grotesquery of later films such as The Serpent’s Egg and From The Life of the Marionettes. This film however retains a character of its own, plunging much further into a soul in bitter torment, building up an oppressive atmosphere that culminates in a series of extraordinary images that only David Lynch could rival. Like Lynch, Bergman uses one of the most effective and invisible ways of creating a sense of unease – through sound, through speech distorted by noise and howling winds, silent shrieks and discordant music. Never one to rely on the one bag of tricks, cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s photography also adapts to the theme, matching the action and sound, cutting furiously, pulling sudden zooms into punishing close-ups and pushing film speed to create excessively grainy, high-contrast images. The effect is profoundly disturbing.
Hour of the Wolf is an interesting Bergman film in many respects, containing many powerful scenes and images, but there is no light and shade here. The film is pitched at hysteria level from the start and it doesn’t really vary from that. It’s relentlessly dark and almost as bleak as Winter Light – perhaps Bergman’s most harrowing film, but the fine actors have less to work with here and are unable to demonstrate any real range. In terms of subject, Bergman expands on earlier themes concerned with the internal conflict of an artist evident in films such as Sawdust And Tinsel and The Magician, but expanding it here to a character who is trying to grapple with truth and inner turmoil while having to present his work and “perform” for the public who are the cause of those terrors. Haunting, disturbing, experimental, yet cold and cerebral, Hour of the Wolf doesn’t really work as successfully as a psychological horror as some of his work, the terrors remaining largely abstract and barely defined but it is pure Bergman, which means it’s quite unlike anything else and consequently unlikely to be to everyone’s taste.
MGM’s Region 2 release of Hour of the Wolf is most disappointing. In terms of video and audio quality, it appears to be on a par with the Region 1 release – the black and white tones almost on a par with any of the Tartan Bergman releases. Nykvist experiments with the black and white tones, some scenes between Alma and Johan looking very dark with no strong contrast, showing light flicker and exhibit a lot of grain. The effect is probably intentional as the nightmare scenes of Johan’s confrontations with the inhabitants of the castle are crisp and clear, with bright lights illuminating faces in strong contrast to the backgrounds. Quite how effectively the transfer captures the original intentions of the director and cinematographer is hard to judge, but this generally looks very good indeed. The film is presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Audio is rather dull and low and can occasionally sound booming on voices, but sharp sounds – so critical to the effect of the film – are strong and effective. The English language subtitles are hard of hearing, indicating sound effects.
The real disappointment however, like MGM’s releases of their other Region 2 Bergman films, comes in the fact that none of the extra features included on the US Region 1 release have been included here – no commentary, featurette, interviews, photo galleries or trailers. See Mike Sutton’s review of the Region 1 release here for more details on what UK viewers have been deprived of. The UK DVD is consequently single-layer as opposed to the DVD9 R1 release. The Region 2 release (also encoded for R4) is further marred by the obscure icons MGM use on their menus for Chapter, Subtitle and Audio sections. A disappointing barebones affair.
Exploring themes that Bergman has examined better in other films, The Hour of the Wolf is only really meaningful if you are familiar with the director’s other films on the fragility of the human psyche and its struggle to comprehend its place in a world where the absence of God has left an unbearable silence. For anyone else, Hour of the Wolf is likely to appear extremely confusing and pretentious. It is however, one of Bergman’s most effectively eerie and experimental films and has tremendous depths if you are willing to go there. MGM’s UK Region 2 release is fine for picture and audio quality, but this is a poor edition compared to its Region 1 counterpart.