Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Hour of the Wolf

Hour of the Wolf aka Vargtimmen (1968)
Dir. Ingmar Bergman
Written by Ingmar Bergman
Starring Max Von Sydow, Liv Ullman

    Contrary to what I was led to believe before seeing this one, it is not “Ingmar Bergman’s werewolf film,” which I think we can all agree is a global tragedy and probably justifies cloning Bergman back to life and forcing him to shoot such a film. But, it’s not a total loss, because if you can get past the fact that there is no werewolf at all anywhere in here, it’s still one of those brilliant masterpiece sort of films you always hear about. What it actually is, is a frosty Swedish drama which gradually (and sometimes suddenly) dissolves into a surreal hallucinatory horror show.

    The plot concerns Johan (Max Von Sydow) a troubled artist and Alma (Liv Ullman) his quietly supportive wife. What’s troubling him is that he has horrible nightmares which have led to insomnia, which has led to a somewhat disturbed state of mind where he’s not sure what to make of the weird things that have been happening to him. What weird things would those be? Well, for instance, one day while he’s fishing this creepy little kid jumps on his back and tries to eat his face off so he has to smash him against a rock and throw him into the sea. That strike ya as odd enough? 

You light up my eyes

    The coolest thing about the film is it’s pacing. In the early scenes it’s glacial, frequently holding a single shot for an uncomfortably long time as some character walks up towards the camera from a far distance or holding still on the protagonists’ faces as they have a long, quiet conversation. It’s so bleak and sparse that it almost reminds me of Carl Dreyer’s VAMPYR or even JOAN OF ARC’s in its expressionistic minimalism. And it’s deep, creepy quiet. But then, suddenly, Johan and Alma are whisked away the the local castle, where a group of foppish old aristocrats assault them with a nigh-on violent cacophony of chatty entertainment. Johan’s obvious discomfort leads him to drink, which leads the camera on a wild and disorienting whirlwind around the table (I half expected the cast from That 70’s Show to turn up as Bergman oscillates around, staring into laughing faces). From there, things gradually get weirder and weirder and the surroundings get more surreal, until eventually they dress Johan up in women’s clothes and makeup and he feels up his dead girlfriend who’s laying naked on a shroud-covered slab in an empty room while a bunch of laughing freaks watch him and... well, you’ll have to see it. Suffice to say I think this Bergman guy has got some talent, I bet he has a pretty solid werewolf film in him somewhere.

Better keep an eye on it

    What does it all mean? I’m not really sure. It’s interesting that Johan is an artist, and in fact his work is a major plot point, despite the fact that the film deliberately (and frustratingly) never lets us see his actual paintings. I’m sort of leaning towards the film being about the anxiety of creation (with its obvious parallels to art, sexuality and children) but there’s a rich enough stew here that I bet you could come up with many equally valid bullshit explanations as to what it’s “really” about. To me, however, what specifically the symbolism refers to is a minor point next to the film’s enormous success at evoking the feeling of being anxious and alone in the hour of the wolf -- that last hour of night before the dawn, when the mind starts to consider fantastic and terrible things.


LOVECRAFT ADAPTATION: No, but that would be awesome.
BOOBIES: Straight-up-full-frontal.
> or = HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS LEVEL GORE: Von Sydow gets bloodied up by the end, but it's hardly gore.
SEQUEL: Sequel to HOUR OF THE CHIHUAHUA, Bergman's seldom-seen horror comedy classic.
OBSCURITY LEVEL: Well known to pretentious snobs such as myself, little known elsewhere. The fact that I saw it at Washington Psychotronic Film Society probably gives it some obscurity cred.
MONSTERS: We hear about some pretty freaky monsters, but never get to see them.
CURSES: I don't think so.
ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE: Easily. For some reason this gorgeous, challenging classic film by one of cinema's greatest directors held her attention longer than, say, SLUGS.

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