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Hour of the Wolf

MGM // R // April 20, 2004
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by DVD Savant | posted April 2, 2004 | E-mail the Author

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Hour of the Wolf is one of Ingmar Bergman's shorter, simpler films. Although it confuses many viewers, it's actually quite clear about its content: It's a horror film, and a good one, even though Phil Hardy in his Encyclopedia of Horror Movies disparages Bergman as less existential than being about "people unable to see further than the ends of their noses who have all the time in the world to concentrate on their favorite (and only view)." Well, good for Bergman. Even Travis Bickle warned against the pitfalls of morbid self-attention.


Alma Borg (Liv Ullmann) partly narrates a remembrance of her husband Johan (Max von Sydow), a frustrated artist. Creatively dry, he succumbs to both drink and his inner demons, telling Alma about his drawings of the island inhabitants as freaks and monsters. An invitation to the castle of the local landowner becomes an uncomfortable exercise in humiliation and confusion. Then jealousy over an old love affair and the confession of a horrible crime appear to push Johan over the edge of madness. He shoots Alma and returns to the castle, which has now changed into a maze of cold catacombs ...

Liv Ullmann provides the pained humanity, Max von Sydow the tortured artist/Ingmar Bergman substitute, and the rest of the cast are the Dementia - like demons that haunt his soul. Ullman's Alma Borg talks about emotional sharing so she sometimes sees them too, even if only figuratively. For all we know, the couple may be the only inhabitants of their island, because all of the encounters with the spectral creatures who live there seem to take place in a different dimension. The suspicious old lady come to warn Alma is completely white. The sexually precocious, demon-like boy who harasses Johan is seen in a flashback effectively styled with high grain and contrast. Johan's old love Veronica Vogler (Ingrid Thulin) appears like a lamia out of the horror film Incubus. Bergman's original title was The Cannibals and although these demons put on a good show of quasi-normality, they strike out and bite without warning. They can behave invitingly, but their intent is to destroy.

The reality of going insane and imagining persecuting creatures might really be something like Hour of the Wolf, for Bergman's fantasy sequences have an oneiric bite, the sweaty texture of nightmares. It's true that Roman Polanski made films that more effectively transform the normal into the nightmarish, but Bergman's hallucinatory castle is more than intimidating. It's possible that these terrors were specifically dreamed by the director.

Bergman also gets the concept right. The script solemnly states that the Hour of the Wolf is the time of the night when people die and babies are born, but we know better. It's that strange period between about 3:30 and 4:45 AM when one's psychological defenses are at their lowest ebb. I'm partly Swedish and I have to say I empathize with Bergman, for every so often I'll wake up scowling at some crazy dream where I'm once again frantic about some petty self-judged offense from 30 years ago, or still worried about school responsibilities from college. Petty crimes like not watering the grass or following through on something seem like hanging offenses, the kind of things that make you feel isolated and hopeless even as you know they're illusions.

Johan's going through the same thing, only his fantasies have taken over completely. He believes he has murdered a young boy, which may be completely imagined, just as he seems to assume that his gunshots have killed Alma. Just as in Dementia, he's "guilty, guilty, GUILTY."

The phantasmagoria inside poor Johan's head is excellently expressed. Shamed husbands walk on ceilings, and personalities that before were just irritating are now militantly perverse. We see in action the old lady that Johan described as "taking off her hat, and her face comes with it." The castle is now a bottomless crypt full of demonic crows and delirious pigeons. Johan is made up like a stage actor (or a painted "fairy") and placed in a ridiculously compromised situation, to be laughed at like an artist his host once described.

Worse yet, for Johan there's no coming back. Alma relates a contrasting description of events in which an unresponsive Johan is overcome by his inner demons and disappears into the marshes. Bergman leaves us with the added horror of responsibility, of someone loving and caring now equally tormented. Will Alma deteriorate as did Johan, or is her psyche made of stronger stuff?  1

MGM's DVD of Hour of the Wolf was recalled and the pricey box set it came in was delayed, while new discs were pressed of this title and Shame. The decision was made to do this at the last minute after research confirmed what a mini-storm on the internet claimed: Both films were officially 1:33 but the first pressings of the discs were 1:66, with very narrow letterbox bars top and bottom. I hate to sound like a phillistine to the purists, but in my practical experience the overmatting on the average television monitor can alter the Aspect Ratio of a DVD image almost as much as this mistake.

Whether the recall was the right thing to do I can't say, but I'm sure it made for some upset people at MGM, where this kind of attention being lavished on a marginal-profit tier of film isn't supposed to blow up in their faces. Sure, aspect ratios should be gotten right, but if that was a rule enforced by law, MGM would have to recall a couple of hundred titles. I can't see that happening.

What I can see happening, however, is the next person at MGM who proposes a swanky special edition disc set to please the fans of rarified art films, being handed his head. And that's too bad.

I'm still reviewing Hour of the Wolf from the 1:66 original disc I was sent, the framing of which has yet to offend me or inspire me to make demands online. The transfer is exceptional. What looked murky or indistinct on VHS is cured here; when Johan walks into the black swamp, we don't need to guess at forms in the darkness any more. A tree branch is just a tree branch after all.

The extras for this disc are part of the same package of interviews and docus conducted in 2002 with prime talent Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, and they're great. Ms. Ullmann must have wanted to speak out on the subject, because she tells all openly and without reserve while still impressing us as a great lady. The weak link is the commentary and docu presence of Bergman author Marc Gervais. I haven't read his work, but here he persists in pointing out the obvious and framing most of his comments as open-ended questions or blind theories, a series of thesis statements with no discussion to back them up. Being informed that Persona was Bergman's psychological opus and this film his investigation into madness, isn't all that revealing.

The still galleries are nicely appointed, as are all of the menus and overall design of the DVD. The Lopert (presumably U.S.) trailer contains beaucoup nudity, but appears to be a genuine 1968 release item.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Hour of the Wolf rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary by Bergman biographer Marc Gervais, The Search for Sanity featurette, Interviews with Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, Photo galleries, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 30, 2004


1. There are probably many more references like this in Woody Allen films, but if you remember the scene in Starlight Memories where Allen wanders the woods following the trail of bodies left by his alter ego and finds a group of aliens, it can somewhat mitigate the seriousness of Alma's nighttime trip into the swamp.

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