Wide World of Horror: ‘Hour of the Wolf’

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Vargtimmen (Hour of the Wolf)
Written by Ingmar Bergman
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Sweden, 1968

Throughout his storied career, Ingmar Bergman displayed a keen interest in the psychological. However, he didn’t often broach the psychological from a horror perspective. Herr Bergman occasionally brought supernatural elements into his films, but he always stopped just short of entering the world of horror. Enter into the fray Bergman’s 1968 effort, Vargtimmen. This time Bergman has driven full on into the realm of horror. Vargtimmen is a bloody, moody, and tense nightmare from a man who is incapable of keeping his deepest fears off of the screen.

To accomplish the task of bringing his nightmares to life, Bergman has employed the formidable talents of Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann. Those two actors were quite used to working with Bergman, and in the case of Frau Ullmann, moving beyond working and into a personal relationship. Bergman takes two people he knows and fills them with the nightmares that drove his career; He couldn’t have chosen two better actors. Max von Sydow has eyes that burn with fear and body movements that recoil from what he is becoming. Ullmann is delicate, lost, and yet the strongest character in the film. She is the bedrock standing strong as the world around her is torn asunder.

At first Vargtimmen doesn’t quite feel like a horror movie. It presents itself very much as the sort of drama that most viewers have come to expect from Bergman. But in retrospect, Vargtimmen is a horror movie from the very start and after two very important moments, it becomes perfectly clear what Bergman is going for.

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One scene is simple and stark in its approach to horror. Herr von Sydow’s character is looking at his watch and counting down a minute in time while Frau Ullmann looks on. There are no tricks, no swift camera movements, nor a pulsing score. There is only tension and a steady camera held on the two actors. The tension in this scene is palpable on a level that most horror movies never manage to reach. A simple scene in which a man counts down the seconds on his watch while his wife watches in the background, is as tense as the human heart can bear.

At a later point in Vargtimmen, the secondary characters begin to reveal their, possibly, true nature. Again, in this sequence Herr Bergman does not employ tricks to achieve true horror. He shows the unraveling of a man’s mind in a fluid manner that is harsh to take in. The desire is to search for some sort of rock to resist the tumult taking place. At no point does Bergman provide that rock. He lets it be known that nothing is sacred, and in fact nothing may be what it seems. There is no truth, there is no greater meaning, there is only the nightmare.

The word “legend” is tossed around an awful lot, but it is apropos for discussing Ingmar Bergman. Watching the legendary director fully embrace the horror genre is exhilarating. Vargtimmen traverses in the nightmare of being human. The nightmare of Vargtimmen never ends, and it never can. Because when all is said and done, there may be no scarier nightmare than that of being human.

Bill Thompson

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