Written by: Johan Fundin on May 16th, 2006
Theatrical Release Dates: Sweden 1968
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Cast: Max Von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Gertrud Fridh, Georg Rydeberg, Erland Josephson, Ingrid Thulin
DVD released: April 20th, 2004
Approximate running time: 87 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 Full Frame
Sound: Dolby Digital mono
DVD Release: MGM
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $24.98
Some years ago the painter Johan Borg (von Sydow) vanished without a trace from his home on the Frisian island of Baltrum. His wife, Alma (Ullmann), later found Johan’s diary among his papers. This diary, together with Alma’s own words, is the basis of this film. Occasionally throughout the movie, Alma is directly addressing the viewer, us. The first shot of the film shows Alma talking to us at a time when all the terrifying events are in the past, whereafter the story is told in a flashback.
Johan Borg is haunted by demons from past and present and is struggling to keep his sanity. Alma is giving him full support but the husband’s freefall into madness is threatening their marriage. One day the couple is visited by a certain Baron von Merkens (Josephson) who lives in a creepy Gothic castle on the north side of the island. The baron, who claims to be an admirer of Johan’s art paintings, invites the couple to a dinner party at the castle. At the event the following night there are eight characters: Baron von Merkens and his wife Corinne, the baron’s mother Countess von Merkens, the baron’s brother Ernst, Mr Lindhorst, Mr Heerbrand, and finally Mr and Mrs Borg. The painter, whose mental health is continuously deteriorating, feels uncomfortable at the dinner table and the story takes a turn where the boundary between hallucination and reality is erased. Who is Baron von Merkens and his friends? Are they real or are they all demons from the subconscious?
On their way home after the party, leaving the castle by foot in the stormy night, Alma tells Johan that she has read his diary and that she’s nearly sick with fear. She can see that something horrifying is happening, but she says she will support her husband even when she’s terrified. “-They can not force me to run away from you, no matter how hard they try!!”, Alma shouts but her words are reduced by the stormy night. Johan is not listening…he walks away and disappears in the dark.
What now follows is a masterful, hypnotic episode of horror cinema: The caption card ‘Hour of the Wolf’ in white letters on an all black background appears on the screen whereafter the rest of the film, some 30minutes, is a non-stop flow of Gothic horror set pieces and a startling array of surreal and sexual imagery. The viewer is guided through a corridor full of crows… Veronica Vogler – Johan’s sexual obsession from the past; their relationship became a torment later in life – is now back as a naked, sex craving demon (superbly played by Ingrid Thulin). Another demon is walking the walls and ceiling (reminiscent of a similar scene in Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986)) and a third one is removing its own eyeballs and puts them in a glass of water, etc. A black, screaming, hostile crow is shot in extreme close-up…Johan’s world has become a haunting nightmare…
Hour of the Wolf is filled with Bergmanian trademarks and references to both earlier and future work, e.g. the occurance of ‘a play within the play’ – a scene of a stage play, or as here (or as in Fanny and Alexander (1982)): a doll-size stage play with marionettes, symbolizing the director’s strong link with and love for the Theatre. Furthermore, character names in this film, like in many other Bergman films, are encoded:
Johan Borg: Johan was the name of the boy in The Silence (1963) and of Erland Josephson’s character in Scenes from a Marriage (1974) and Saraband (2003). Borg is also the surname of the leading character, played by Victor Sjostrom, in Wild Strawberries (1957). Alma Borg: Ref. To nurse Alma in Persona (1966). Baron von Merkens: von Merkens is a real person mentioned in the autobiographic work Laterna Magica (The Magic Lantern) (1986). Veronica Vogler: Ref. To Elisabeth Vogler, Persona again (1966). Even the baron’s brother, Ernst, fits into the cryptic sub-context: Ernst is the director’s first name (Ernst Ingmar Bergman).
To my knowledge, no DVD studio in the world is presenting Hour of the Wolf in its correct (original) aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Initially, MGM (US) released the film in a fabricated 1.66:1 widescreen but supposedly removed it from the market when informed about their mistake. But it’s still not good. Both the UK and US releases are in 4:3; it’s close to 1.37:1 but not perfect. One person for sure, Bergman himself, would not like this at all if it came to his knowledge. He is already furious about the advertisement breaks in his films when they play on television. The Swedish audio mix is free of any sound defects. Overall it is a more then adequate mix considering the films age and the limitations of working with a mono sound mix. English, French and Spanish subtitles have been included.
In the US, Hour of the Wolf is available as a separate DVD or as part of a DVD box set together with four other Bergman films (Persona, Shame, The Passion of Anna and The Serpent’s Egg). (Then again, be aware of those faulty widescreen releases that might still be in circulation to some extent.) In the UK, the film is available as a separate DVD. The US release is a ‘Special Edition’ with a few extras while the UK release has no extra material at all. Extras for US release include Ingmar Bergman at work and Hour of the Wolf photo galleries, Hour of the Wolf’s original theatrical trailer, on camera interviews with Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, an audio commentary by Bergman biographer Marc Gervais and a twenty six minute featurette titled “The Search for Sanity”.
Hour of the Wolf is nothing short of a masterpiece of screen horror where ‘the demon director’ (as Bergman is nick-named in Scandinavia) is exercising his own demons and schizophrenia through the magnificent von Sydow. As always, Bergman is scrupulous with his soundtracks, often reducing their music to a minimum. Still the limited music is very effective, here expressed in terms of ripples of harp strings and unsettling tunes of violins, quite similar to the Persona (1966) soundtrack. Some viewers might find the landscape images familiar, as the film was shot at the same location as the spiritual horror drama The Seventh Seal (1957).
This review originally appeared at Dark Discussion and is reprinted here with permission.