With Ingmar Bergman's recent death on the minds of cinephiles every where, I feel it's some what of a duty to pass a comment on a director who I once claimed my absolute favorite. When I was a kid I was obsessed with horror movies, a love that clearly still shines. At age four my favorites were Beetlejuice and Ghostbusters, and by the time my mother was allowing me to wander off in the video store by myself I would spend my time memorizing the terrifying covers of the horror section (I was always particularly intrigued by the overly grotesque covers of the Nightmare on Elm Street
series). Naturally, it wasn't until a few years later that I could actually see the contents of the tapes that these grotesque covers contained, but to my mind it was well worth the wait. I spent the rest of my early school years devouring every horror film I could come into contact with (keep in mind that's really not that much to a 13 year old at a Blockbuster or Grocery Store video section).
Once I was a Sophomore in High School, I managed to get into the only Film Studies class that my school offered. It was by a fluke in my guidance counselor's attention that I even managed to get into the class (it was a class for Seniors), but in retrospect the class couldn't have come at a better time. For the first time I was exposed to foreign and art house films; all of the basics from Eisenstein to Fellini. Naturally this included Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal.
While I've never been to keen on period pieces (which is what a majority of Bergman's films ostensibly are), something about the film more or less blew my mind. It was intelligent, beautiful to look at, existentially terrifying, and important. Following this class I went through a period of trying to catch up with every "important" art house film in existence; luckily by this point I had discovered an alternative video store (which I would later end up working at for five consecutive years) that stocked films that regular video stores didn't, and I had by saving hard earned cashed at minimal waged retail jobs bought myself my own TV, VCR, and low-end DVD player.
During this period I watched every Bergman film I could get my hands on. More than the video store, the library was most helpful here, as this was when DVD was still a new format so not many of his films were available on DVD yet. Luckily the local library had plenty of his films on VHS, and it was here that I encountered Hour of the Wolf.
I didn't quite make the connection at the time, but Hour of the Wolf has become a sort of signifier to me since then. Bergman is often the film-snobs God, and there's nothing the film snob likes to do more than to put down genre films. Hour of the Wolf became my hat- trick, it was a genre film that the director who epitomized "ART HOUSE" himself had made. It was a connection, it dug genre film out of the gutter and gave me an easy segue to make any arguments I had developed.
Years later I am comfortable having my views on film as it is without having to rely on this calling-card; in fact, until today I hadn't watched a Bergman film in probably four years, having found a niche that I much prefer over the often stuffy European masters. But with Bergman's recent death I remembered his horror film, that I had held so dear for more of a conceptual reasoning than anything else, and I felt that it was time to revisit.
Hour of the Wolf tells the tale of the artist Johan, and his subservient wife, Alma. The two live on a windy island that is more or less cut off from humanity. Johan is suffering as an artist and ghosts from his past keep appearing, especially during the hour of the night which he terms the titular hour of the wolf, "the hour between night and dawn[, ...]the hour when most people die." Eventually his despair and haunted past climax at a mysterious castle that is inhabited by a cast of grotesque characters who eventually lead to his undoing.
As usual for an Ingmar Bergman film, the technicalities of the film are excellent. Sven Nykvist's gorgeous high contrast black and white cinematography helps to heighten the surreality that permeates every scene, especially a super-high contrast scene shot on a beach involving a little boy. The acting is aptly creeping and intense, though occasionally deviates too far into the realm of theatricality for my liking. The one major complaint that I have with the film is the framing technique that places the film as Alma telling a story, breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the camera while trying to show her grief; it falls a little flat and distracts from the story at the heart of the film.
The best thing about the film is Bergman's liberal use of the fantastique; whether it be in the nightmarish castle scenes, or in the approach he takes to Max von Sydow's utterly passionate belief in the ghosts that haunt him. In fact, it is these fantastique scenes that place this film above Bergman's other films in my mind. Bergman fails to ask any new questions in the film, but rather he's allowed himself to somewhat escape from the bleak hyper-reality that he normally dwells in and lets himself explore these questions in a new venue; the world of the unreal. Though surreal and fantastique elements aren't totally unique to this film (in two of Bergman's most well known films, The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries these aspects are present), but it is in this film they are most sinister and present.
The film is not perfect, and in the realm of horror films there are many other films that succeed to a far greater extent, but it certainly stands out (in the same way Fellini's Toby Dammit segment of Spirits of the Dead) as a majorly canonical European director taking a stab at genre film. In fact, it's arguable that Bergman's art house pretensions are the only things that are stopping this film from being a masterpiece; Bergman's reliance of ennui extends too far and somewhat puts a damper on the suspense/horror rather than extends it.
So while Bergman may not be as important to me now as he once was, it's ignorant to deny his place in the history of cinema. I don't really feel much "sadness" for his death other than one feels when another human being dies; rather, he had been working for a long time, and he had accomplished a lot, so if anything he succeeded in fulfilling a dream that many men have; he will be remembered.