Hour of the Wolf is a Swedish horror movie written and directed by Ingmar Bergman. With a title like Hour of the Wolf, you can be forgiven if you expect this to be movie about a werewolf, but it’s not. The monsters in this movie are of a different kind.
The movie begins by introducing a pregnant woman called Alma (Liv Ullman), who walks out of her cottage, stares into the camera, and begins to explain the circumstances of her husband’s disappearance. Alma also explains her reasons for choosing to remain living in their remote, island home. The rest of the movie then continues in flashback.
Alma’s husband, Johan Borg (Max von Sydow), was a famous painter. They came to the island so that he could have the solitude he needed to concentrate on his work. Alma and Johan initially appear to be a close couple but not long after their arrival Johan begins to distance himself from his wife and it becomes obvious that he is still mourning the loss of a past love, Veronica Vogler (Ingrid Thulin).
There is also some mention of a recent illness and some of Johan’s actions and the thoughts he expresses force bring up questions about his mental health. One of the strangest developments is the artist’s chosen sleep pattern. Afraid to sleep at night, he insists on staying awake until dawn. Alma sits with him, quietly darning socks or listening to his increasingly strange ramblings.
A lot of the movie is set during the early hours of the morning. Johan calls this time vargtimmen (hour of the wolf), and tells Alma, “It is the hour when most people die, when sleep is deepest, when nightmares are more real.’ He then goes on to explain that it is also the time when, “The sleepless are haunted by their deepest fear, when ghosts and demons are most powerful.” With thoughts like that running through his head it’s not surprising that Johan finds it hard to sleep.
These night time speeches tell the viewer much about the troubled painter, but it is hard to say whether he has fallen victim to delusions or if more sinister forces are at work. At one point he becomes agitated and shows Alma some sketches in his sketchbook. He tells her the sketches are of people he has met on the island:
- The Insects
- The Carnivores
- The Spider Man
- The Schoolmaster (with the pointer in his pants)
- The Old lady, who is always threatening to remove her hat (and her face)
- The Bird Man (the worst of them all)
The following day, Alma turns around in the garden and discovers an old lady, wearing a hat, is watching her. The lady is aware Alma has seen the sketches, tells her Johan wishes to destroy them, and urges Alma to prevent him from doing so. She also tells her where to find Johan’s diary and suggests she should read it. Alma finds the diary, and is hurt by some of the things she reads, but hides her pain from her husband.
The old lady is just one of several strange characters who live in a castle at the other side of the island and it is not long before the owner of the castle, Baron von Merkens (Erland Josephson), invites the couple to lunch, where it soon becomes obvious that the castle folk do not have the couples best interests at heart and seem to be determined to invade on their lives and drive a wedge between them.
Some of the strangest scenes in the movie occur at the castle, as do some of the most unnerving. Towards the end of the movie Johan is lured to the castle to meet his former love, Veronica, and when he gets there he witnesses the baron walk up a wall and then hang upside down with his feet firmly planted on the ceiling. Not long after this, the lady in the hat carries out her threat and removes her head gear, followed by her face and eyeballs.
In the next scene a man, who must surely be the bird man, prepares Johan for his big reunion. He lends him a dressing gown, applies some lipstick to his lips, followed by some powder and a little mascara. The love sick Johan just seems to accept all of this as normal, but it could be seen to symbolise him becoming the baron’s clown, and when Johan eventually reaches Veronica, he finds her stretched out, naked, underneath a sheet, and she appears to be dead.
The touching scene that follows borders on an act of necrophilia until Johan’s lady love wakes up and kisses him, much to the amusement of the Baron and his associates, who are congregated in an alcove, watching and laughing. The saddest thing of all is that Veronica, who is obviously in cahoots with them, is also enjoying a good laugh at his expense.
Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf is a rather disturbing movie that, once seen, is hard to forget, but it’s also a movie that many viewers may fail to appreciate, and dismiss out of hand. It’s rather slow-moving and relies more on the building and sustaining a sense of unease in the viewer rather than using the more popular shock tactics, that are so common in many horror movies.
Hour of the Wolf is not a movie that will make anyone sit on the edge of their seat in excitement or jump out of it in fright. The viewer has to just sit back and watch the tale unfold, all the while wondering how much of the story in Johan’s head and how much is real.
Johan’s disappearance is certainly real, and Alma is witness to his cruel fate at the hands of the castle dwellers, who by that point appear to have been revealed as the demons from the sketchbook. But as Alma says, in her parting monologue, “Is it true that a woman who lives a long time with a man eventually winds up being like that man? I mean, she loves him and tries to think like him, and see like him.”
Has Alma discovered the truth of things, or has she followed her husband into the depths of delusion? That’s something you will have to decide for yourself if this review has sparked your interest enough to make you want to watch this unusual Swedish horror movie.
Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf is a subtitled movie and a dubbed version does not seem likely anytime soon. If you don’t like watcing movies with subtitles, Hour of the Wolf won’t be a good option for you.
The movie has a runtime of 84 mintues. At the time of this review, buying Hour of the Wolf on Blu-ray was not an option, but it should be easy to get hold of it on DVD.
However, if you are big fan of Ingmar Bergman’s work you will probably get a much better deal if you buy Hour of the Wolf as part of the Ingmar Bergman Special Edition DVD collection [#ad].