Ingmar Bergman ventures into horror genre in this 1968 classic, “Vargtimmen” [Eng. Title: The Hour of the Wolf]. Versatile though the great man is, as ever, he doesn’t for a frame forego his meticulous attention to detail. You don’t have impressive special effects here – he instead gives us a master class in editing and cinematography which in itself is more than enough to trigger the audience imagination into conjuring up the ensuing horror.
The film can be seen from two angles – as a study of neurosis and the manner in which it could spread to people close to the person suffering from it, or as a study of the effects of an artist’s torment. I personally prefer the former as it is illustrated magnificently on its own without the need for additional reference points from other works.
The hour of the wolf alludes to that time of night when death (or birth) occurs, as do nightmares for restless people. Landscape painter Johan relocates to a secluded island with his wife Alma – the only other occupants there are the owners of the island – Baron von Merkens and his family. Johan prefers solitude, and Alma, very much in love with her husband, agrees to the move – she is also pregnant. We observe their daily rituals and gradually get a picture of Johan – who surely appears to have a few skeletons in his closet. These are only revealed during the last half hour of the film as it explodes into a series of dramatic events. By the time the film finishes, we are left with our mouth wide open wondering what the hell just happened – as always – Bergman strikes us clinically giving us little time to prepare ourselves for what’s about to happen.
The film is studded with impressive surreal imagery but don’t get distracted by it – most of it is purely atmospheric, like the images of the raven and the flight of pigeons – that is cinematographer Sven Nykvist showing off and teasing us. What is impressive however is the manner in which Bergman builds Johan’s character and gives us as a vivid portrait of his advancing mental illness. Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann who plays Alma is absolutely gorgeous in this film – she was also actually pregnant (with Bergman’s child) during the filming – there must be something about pregnancy that brings out this special glow in women I suppose – you find it in her, and it is simply beautiful. The DVD extras include some insightful interviews with Bergman, Ullmann, and Erland Josephson about the film’s making – precious and revealing. Needless to say, Highly Recommended Viewing..!