31 Days of Hell: Hour of the Wolf (1968) - Reviewed

"The old ones called it the 'hour of the wolf'. It is the hour when the most people die, and the most are born. At this time, nightmares come to us. And when we awake, we are afraid."

There are a handful of films whose influence over modern cinema are undeniable. Kurosawa to Star Wars. Lang to The Dark Knight. Ingmar Bergman's disturbing masterpiece, Hour of the Wolf is a pinnacle of surreal psychological horror whose influence on Polanski, Lynch, Zulawski, and countless other artists is evident from the first frame.

Johan is a painter who has retreated to an island with his wife Alma after a mysterious calamity. He is afflicted with insomnia, and believes that he is under assault by demonic forces, who appear to during the Hour of the Wolf, the time between darkness and light. Alma soon discovers that Johan is not only obsessed with his supernatural tormentors, but is also infatuated with memories of a former lover. The couple are invited to a dinner party at a local noble's castle, where sickening agendas are revealed and Johan's fragile sanity is irrevocably destroyed.

The fourth wall is more of an idea rather than a constraint, with the credits being scored by Bergman talking to his crew about setting up the first shot. The film is also book ended by monologues addressed directly at the viewer, evoking the bereaved wonder of Greek tragedies. The amazing Liv Ullman gives a chillingly complacent performance as Alma, addressing the audience in an accusatory tone to snap the perspective back to semi-reality and then immersing herself in the convoluted mysteries of her husband's madness. If Sydows's Johan is the chaotic storm at sea, Ullman's Alma is the Pyrrhic life line, tossed from an already sinking ship. Hour of the Wolf is not only about the personal demons that stalk throughout Bergman's films, it's about the power that love has to casually inflict atrocities on those it has enraptured.

Film legend Max Von Sydow gives one of the best performances of his unassailable career as Johan. He contrasts Ullman's anxious collaborator by portraying a man who is slowly embracing the personal hell of his own construction. There film has an ever-present supernatural atmosphere, but Sydow exposes the broken heart at the core, the idea that the road not traveled is indeed always sweeter in hindsight. Johan's childlike obsession is terrifying in how it encapsulates the emotional paralysis that follows a devastating separation. Sydow does some of the best acting in film history during the final portion of the film, harnessing the polar extremities of lust and humiliation with gentle submission.

Sven Nykvist's cinematography is naked and violent. The stark black and white colors convey the feeling of wrongness that pervades the film. Virtually every shot of the titular couple is a close up, exposing the domestic nightmare with brilliant light and scandalous shadow. Karl-Anne Bergman's dungeon-like sets are framed with deep shots, presenting every locale as a well of loneliness. Both the familial home and the ominous castle feel simultaneously crowded and empty, simulating the euphoric disasters that marital destruction often delivers. Lars Johan Werle's subdued score has a whisper-like quality, erratically appearing just long enough to remind the viewer that the danger is real. Ulla Ryghe's inventive editing combines all of the elements to deliver the final form of the film, deviously presenting the real and imagined in an endless procession of enigmas for the viewer to unravel.

Available now on DVD, Hour of the Wolf is pure psychological terror that uses the death of a marriage as a pulpit upon which to spread its unspeakable gospel. Featuring two powerful performances and Bergman's incomparable craftsmanship, the end result if one of the most shocking and legitimately terrifying films in the genre.

--Kyle Jonathan