Watching Hour of the Wolf, Ingmar Bergman's 1968 film, feels like wading through a full blown nightmare. Bergman had played with macabre imagery in his previous films - the character of Death in The Seventh Seal, and two impressively eerie sequences in The Magician and Sawdust and Tinsel, but Hour of the Wolf is one of the Swedish director's darkest, most intense films.
The film takes place on a small, isolated island where Johan, a painter accompanied by his wife Alma, has set up home to work on his art. Johan's fragile mental state, given to bouts of moodiness and plagued by vivid dreams of nightmarish creatures, is weakened further when the couple are courted by the mysterious Baron and his eccentric entourage. These unwelcome guests in the lives of Johan and Alma are not so benevolent as first appears, in fact they may not even be human...
On the face of it, Hour of the Wolf is an abstract and difficult film, but early on in the film, Liv Ullman's character Alma reveals a clue to the audience when she posits a theory that over time, lovers can come to mirror each other, even sharing their very thoughts. And demons. For Bergman, being an artist is a dangerous business, a constant wrestle for control over the spectres of self-doubt, flagging creativity and humiliation. The film shot like a surreal Gothic Horror, is full of strange, hallucinatory images - the corpse of a murdered boy sinking into the depths of the sea, a man walking on a ceiling, and a corridor full of frenzied, flapping pigeons. Bergman's perennial cameraman Sven Nykvist's work here is utterly extraordinary, lighting faces so they resemble the rugged surfaces of the rocky island.
If you're looking to discover the work of Ingmar Bergman, Hour of the Wolf may present an enormous challenge - instead stick with conventional wisdom and see The Seventh Seal first. But if this is a Bergman you've missed in the past, the film is highly recommended. If you bear the weight of such heavy drama, the film makes for a fascinating double-bill with Lars Von Trier's Antichrist, both sharing some interesting parallels with one another.
MGM's DVD of Hour of the Wolf, available as part of their Ingmar Bergman Collection, or on its own, presents the film in its original full-frame ratio. The b/w image is good, grainy at times but sharp nonetheless. It's not up to the standard of Criterion's Bergman discs but it should suffice. The audio is quite standard, but the Swedish dialogue is free from hiss and distortion, and Lars Johan Werle's sparse avant garde score is well represented. Subtitles are offered in English, French and Spanish. The R1 disc (unlike its barbones R2 counterpart) has some interesting extras - a short feature on the film, interviews with Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, and a commentary by Bergman scholar, Marc Gervais. The disc is rounded out with the inclusion of two stills galleries