There’s something pretty intriguing about the idea of Ingmar Bergman dabbling directly in the horror genre. Anyone who practices that much distancing and experimentation may not seem suited to an inherently visceral genre. I mean, some of my absolute favourite scary film moments have come in distant movies. There’s something to be said for the upsetting effect that can have, like the imagery is just directly winding its way into your subconscious. That’s the sort of horror I expected going into Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf, perhaps with healthy touch of formalistic experimentation, and I wasn’t far off in my estimation.
The movie is told in a fractured way. Parts of it come from Alma Borg’s (frequent Bergman collaborator Liv Ullmann) retelling of the events. This seems to be taking place in some sort of interview. The rest is taken from the diaries written by Alma’s husband, Johan Borg (Max von Sydow). Johan is an artist, and Alma is his wife. Alma is completely infatuated and loyal, while Johan seems slightly distant, more concerned with his art than anything else. When Johan paints bad things seems to happen. At one point he upsets and assaults a chatty stranger. Another time he’s approached by the mysterious spectre of a past love.
There’s something wrong with Johan. He keeps Alma awake with him all night, scared at being approached by a collection of monstrous ghouls he describes to his wife. They include birdmen and an old woman whose face comes off with her hat. So when Alma is outside alone she’s fairly startled when an old woman wearing a massive foppish hat approaches her. The woman tells her to find Johan’s diary and read it. She does, and learns more of Johan’s fears and visions, including his past lover.
The couple is then approached by an aging Baron who lives close to their new home. They visit the Baron for dinner, where they meet a host of the Baron’s family. Johan is on edge through the whole surreal scene, which is filled with spiralling swirling conversations on a dizzying array of topics. There’s definitely some creepy stuff going on in this scene. It gets increasingly claustrophobic, and as it does Alma and Johan get more and more upset, Johan appears to be right on the edge of some sort of breakdown through this scene. The couple are led from the dining scene and made to watch a brief but surreal puppet show. The camera closes in on the tiny stage, cutting to a life-sized set that looks identical. Two actors perform, for a short time. And then it ends. It’s definitely a strange little interlude. Then the baron’s wife leads Johan and Alma to a painting of Johan’s she owns. It’s of the woman Johan had previously been obsessed with it. We never see the painting, but we are to understand it’s a startlingly powerful piece. The Baron’s wife seems to be more than a little obsessed with it.
Then we get the second of two scenes that see the couple in the dark, trying to stay awake through the night. Both times Johan describes a story in detail. This sort of stark spoken story seems to pop up in Bergman movies in this period, like Persona. He describes a disturbing childhood punishment. These scenes are raw and jarring, fascinating psychologically driven interludes to the main story.
One of the Baron’s companions later visits Johan’s house, leaving him a gun to protect against small animals, and inviting him to another party. A party that Johan’s past obsession, Veronica, will be attending. Alma confronts him about it and Johan shoots her. She plunges out of the front door of her home, and the next portion of the film is taken from Johan’s journal.
He visits the house, and is taken on a nightmarish, maze-like, tour of the house and its occupants before he can see Veronica. He meets Veronica’s husband, who promises to watch them make love before stepping up the wall of the castle and onto the roof. He meets an old woman who forces him to kiss her bare feet before he can go on. He meets The Woman With a Hat, who removes her hat and face, dropping her eyes into her glass like it’s a Del Toro movie. He meets the Birdman, a flamboyant man who fixes Johan’s hair and make-up before taking him to meet Veronica.
Veronica is lying on a stone slab, a blanket covering her. Johan slowly removes the blanket, then begins caressing her still, nude form. She appears almost dead. But then she sits up and laughs at Johan. The denizens of the house appear behind him and start laughing too, mocking his expression of love. The demons attack him, and he flees into the woods.
Alma, who wasn’t actually shot but instead in hiding, scared of her husbands trigger-happy temperament, starts searching for her spouse after he tears through the house in a fit, penning the events in the house into his journal. She follows him from a distance into the woods, and witnesses the demon’s assault. This scene is pretty great, with Bergman doing things like cutting footage of a crow into a shot of the Birdman attacking Johan. It’s not quite as disturbing as the brilliant series of trials in the house, but it’s still pretty eerie and unsettling. Alma never sees Johan again after the encounter.
The interviewer pushes Alma for more. Especially fascinated by the idea that she believes she witnessed the final demonic attack. She offers this thought: “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? They say it can change a person. I mean to say, if I had loved him much less, and not bothered so of everything about him, could I have protected him better?”