Robert Berlin’s review published on Letterboxd:
Spooky Scary Horrorthons - Film #18
You don't get a lot of time to finish your horror film challenges when you are doing volunteer work for a film festival, oh well.. This will be a november challenge now! Back to the films then!
I will admit that I am not entirely sure about everything that is going on in this film, but I know enough to adore the film and it's mesmerizing, dreamlike atmosphere. The sense of dread and melancholy that is present throughout this film is a famous characteristic of Ingmar Bergman's work, it makes me wonder why Bergman didn't do more things with the horror genre because when I watch Hour of the Wolf it feels like this genre is right up his alley. The black and white photo and the sparse settings are effectively building up one of the most haunting horror experiences that I've ever been through.
The film relies heavily on the concept of the blurred lines between dream and reality. The painter Johan Borg (Max von Sydow) has travelled to a distant island together with his wife, Alma (Liv Ullmann), to try and seek refuge from his raging, inner demons. It doesn't take long until we realize that Johans attempt to run away from his demons have turned out to be a massive failure. Suffering from harsch insomnia and speaking of horrific, nightmarish creatures who keeps taunting him, Johans mind seems to delve deeper and deeper into the depraved voids of insanity the further away he tries to get from his inner demons. von Sydows performance here is nothing short of remarkable. When he speaks about his haunting nightmares I fully believe that he can't get them out of his head and his descriptions of the terrible creatures that are roaming in his dreams are instantly etched into my mind, a truly great acting performance will make me believe what is going on at the screen and this performance is doing just that.
The film soon introduce us to a group of people that are also residing on the island. Whether these people are real or not we never find out but we do know that they bother Johan a lot. The dinner scene where the camera pans around a dinner table as the various guests have a good laugh about various topics is one of the most unsettling scenes I've ever seen. As I sit there and watch this scene playing out I realize that I am in the same position as Johan. It feels like they are laughing at me and I just want to leave this dinner and all these awful people. I am no longer watching Johan going through a inner crisis, I am going through this crisis alongside him.
The crisis that Johan is going through is never fully explained but we are given glimpses of his dark past. We know that he had an affair with a blonde girl several years ago and since then she has been haunting his mind. We also get a slow, disturbing retelling of an event from Johans childhood where he was forcefully locked up in a closet and later physically abused by his father. I do get a feeling that the crisis may have something to do with Johans sexuality, considering the whole closet situation from his childhood (perhaps this is to obvious to be the actual meaning) and a sexual encounter where Johan is being watched by a loud, mocking audience.
The final act of the film where Johan encounters his demons in a fatal showdown is an intense increase in pace and it serves as an effective end to this haunting presentation of a fragile human mind that can't let go of the past. We are finally given the question if any of the mysterious events that happened on this island actually happened or if it was all acted out in the mind of Johan. As Alma puts it in the very final moments of the film: "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?"
A defintive answer is never given but knowing Ingmar Bergman's usual philosophy when it comes to filmmaking I don't think there is supposed to be one. We are merely taken on a ride into the desperate last moments of a man trying to run away from his inner demons. Hour of the Wolf may not be a film that I truly understand, but it is still one of the most thought provoking, beautiful and disturbing films I've ever seen and I will probably never let it go as one of my all time favorites.