Octoberween is the best month. It encourages all things that are creepy, strange, and—to use my newest favorite phrase—spooky scary. As someone who loves movies and pop culture in general, you really can’t ask for a better time with all the TV specials, sales on Count Chocula, and Vincent Price movies. This year, though, I have decided to pick a theme that is outside of my typical Octoberween comfort zone: the eeriest, most bizarre horror films from around the world, with movies that might not make you cover your eyes from the gore but make you stare at a blank screen after the credits have rolled, asking yourself, “What did I just see?”
To start, I decided to look a a movie that has been on my radar for years: Hour of the Wolf (1968; original title: Vargtimmen), by a director who both emblematizes the power of art house cinema and reveals its comical sense of self-importance: Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and Persona, to name a few). I am intrigued by non-horror directors who take on the genre, because their approach is so different from those who focus on horror, and the result can be more frightening simply because it’s unexpected. Hour of the Wolf, to my pleasure and disappointment, manages to capture the best and worst of a director like Bergman.
The most glaring issue with Hour of the Wolf relates to the crux of atmospheric horror: the balance between what the audience does and does not know or understand. The most effective way for a director to keep the audience immersed in a creepy atmosphere is to always have them on edge, and it’s therefore important that they are in an uncomfortable border between knowledge and ignorance. A useful metaphor is someone who is struggling to keep afloat in water: ideally, the viewer is always at head-level with the waterline; occasionally, they might have their whole head just above water, and sometimes half of their face will be underwater. The former is relatively more comfortable, but the viewer never feels like they have escaped the danger. More often, or at least in poorly executed horror movies, the viewer either sits comfortably in a boat above the water—more entertained by it, and only with the slightest worry that they could fall in—or is plunged so deep down that there everything is pointlessly hopeless or disorienting.
Bergman, unsurprisingly, throws us so deep down into the water that the effects of the creepiness cannot be fully acknowledged. It’s too much; characters show up and leave with no explanation, only to be revealed later on. Now, if the audience knew enough in some other areas—e.g. what is going on with the confused Alma (Liv Ullmann) and her distant husband, Johan (Max von Sydow)—then this wouldn’t be a problem. Even some deliberate theming would have fixed this issue. In a lot of movies, you can get by with loose emphasis on the plot so long as the themes you are trying to evoke are clear. But it is only once we piece together that Johan is being haunted either by visions or demons that the disturbing presence of these characters is actually felt. Before that, it’s just not effective. Maybe upon rewatching the film, some eeriness will be brought forth, but a solid director can make that atmosphere felt for the first and subsequent viewings. Bergman is a solid director, so that should have been the case here.
That being said, Hour of the Wolf accomplishes a lot in terms of eeriness that much of its generic kin stumble over. First of all, the framing device adds some much needed depth: the opening credits are shown with an audio overlay of Bergman setting up a shot, saying “Begin” just as the credits end and the movie starts. Then, Alma speaks directly to the audience, implicating them in the telling of the story. At the end of the movie she proposes a question: could she see the demons Johan talked about because she loved him too much, and bought into his delusions? Or could she not help him because she did not love him enough, and thus failed to stop the evil forces? When she looks at the audience and asks this—an effect that is inherently disquieting, because we want to be unnoticed voyeurs in the story—we can’t help but wonder about our role in horror movies: do we care about these characters, and thus witness their stories? Or do we not care enough, and thus allow for the stories that harm them to be created? This is the idea of theming I mentioned earlier that, if it had been present throughout the movie, would have done the story wonders.
While I did complain about the lack of information conveyed to the audience, I will say that the little information we do get is really unsettling. When we hear Johan discuss the “people” he keeps seeing—one woman, he remarks, takes off her hat, and her entire face comes off with it—we share his fears of the strangers approaching him. Are they the evil ones that keep him up at night, or simply cohabitants of the island? That uncertainty is what I wanted more of; we know enough, but not too much. When Alma begins to read Johan’s diary—an admittedly cliched device, but one done effectively here—we finally begin to see enough of the picture to be frightened of it.
As much as I am criticizing Hour of the Wolf, I want to contextualize my complaints: this movie does not trample the competition in terms of atmospheric horror, but it also doesn’t fall far behind. Much of the story, in particular the first third, is still incredibly creepy and complex, capturing some of the successes of Bergman’s movies (intensive character analysis, for instance) and evoking the potential of the horror genre. Sadly, I don’t think it’s one of Bergman’s best, and it’s not one of horror’s best either. It sits in that border space I talked about earlier; sadly, for all the ways that horror movies should occupy that space, this is not one of them.