Ingmar Bergman's Hour of the Wolf, shot exquisitely by Sven Nykvist, is a fascinating entry in the auteur's catalogue. Considered by many a minor work for Bergman, it's an odd, intriguing piece that surprises and resonates in ways that few films can. It's often treated as his only explicit "horror" film, yet thematically it falls in line with many of his other films, which create their own horrors through exploration of the human psyche.
The film opens by informing the viewers through on screen text that Johan, an artist, has gone missing. The film about to be screened is based on his diaries and the accounts of his wife, Alma. The couple are portrayed by Bergman standards Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullman. As is typical of his 60s films, we're treated to some meta context as the director's voice is heard over the title and introduction setting up a shot. This element combined with the set up of unreliable narrators (the diary and the wife) creates the expectation that the account of events we're about to witness will blur reality and fiction, and that nothing can be counted on as "real."
The story is set up as Johan and Alma arrive on an isolated island on a small boat. They carry their possessions, consisting mostly of Joahn's canvases, up a steep hill in a wheelbarrow. Here, Alma tends the home while Johan works on his paintings. They are initially happy - when he promises to draw her every day, she shyly but playfully exposes her neck in precisely the right way.
Their happiness begins to dissolve as Johan becomes increasingly more distant and frustrated. I would be shocked if Darren Aronofsky weren't referencing this film when he was producing Mother!, but then again the tale of a self-centered, tortured male artist neglecting his poor lover is hardly a new tale. We discover through a nightmarish sketchbook that Johan is seeing monsters; a woman who can remove her face when she takes off her hat, a winged bird man, and assorted other creeps.
A key piece of dialogue comes when Alma tells Johan about how she wants them to grow old together until they look alike, but then wonders if a couple can begin to share psychological aspects as well. Not long after this, she is visited by a strange old woman in a large hat. She and the audience are just waiting for her to remove her face as the woman advises her to look under the bed for Johan's diary, which discovers and reads. Here, the distrust settles in, her loneliness transforms to fear.
Soon, unusual characters are coming out of the woodwork to interrogate Johan while he paints. An intrusive professor who gets a slap in the face, the wealthy owners of the island and, somehow, the woman with whom Johan had years earlier had a scandalous affair. These encounters lead to an invitation to a horrific dinner party, including over eager widows and a freakish puppet show. The tension and events escalate, as the motley crew of wealthy eccentrics seem to be trying to divide Johan and Alma - they are obsessed with his former lover and even own Johan's painting of her for the house. The couple are forced to look at the painting as its owner gushes about obsession and love (also inappropriately revealing a sex related injury to the pair, to drive home the discomfort of the situation.)
Everyone we meet here is a personification of one of Johan's demons. They're lustful, indulgent, they needle Johan for the pretension of considering himself an artist, and they all seem obsessed with his sexual appetites. Notably, one of the men is pointed out as a homosexual, implying a more complicated sexual psyche for Johan.
After their horrific dinner, Johan and Alma stay up all night in terror, while Johan begins confessing even more secrets. Shown in an overexposed silent flashback, without and indication of when it happened or IF it actually did, we see Johan painting near a cliff as a barely dressed pre-pubescent boy crawls over the rocks to provoke him.
The boy is intrusive and annoying, and is clearly trying Johan's patience, but it seems to be the last straw when the boy lays down and strikes a provocative pose in the sun. Johan is infuriated and attacks the boy, screaming something that the audience never hears. Ultimately, he kills the boy and disposes of the body in the sea over the cliff.
The point is reached where we see Johan's lust, in various forms, a sexual deviancy, a tendency towards violence and a deep insecurity as an artist. The lead up to this tense moment has Johan in a mentally fragile state - underslept and ravaged by his own demons. Alma, desiring so much to be a part of her husband's world, has subjected herself to these very entities, leaving herself frayed and vulnerable.
A late night visit from the professor leaves the pair with a gun, a heightened sense of fear, and the information that Johan's former lover is waiting for him back at the castle. Johan, being swayed by the professor's guidance to eliminate any small threats, shoots Alma and runs back to the castle.
Here, the monsters reveal themselves, the woman removes her face, a man shows his hideous wings and walks across the ceiling while bemoaning that it's all because of his jealousy. Johan is treated to a makeover to prepare him for his meeting, where he is transformed into a ghoulishly feminized version of himself, gaudy eye shadow and lipstick smeared over his mouth. He is told to wear a robe before entering, further emasculating him. He discovers his lover as the residents of the castle laugh.
Far more explicitly surreal and horrific than most of Bergman's films, Hour of the Wolf is a thrilling ride through the darkness of a man's psyche. His mind over processing his guilt and repression, warping reality into a landscape of monsters and demons must have been a huge influence on David Lynch - what fictions does a person create to make sense of the horrors of trauma and failure? No one explores this space as elegantly and horrifically as Bergman.