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MGM Studios DVD presents
Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen) (1968)

"The old people call it the 'Hour of the Wolf.' It's the hour at which most people die and most children are born. It's now that nightmares come to us."
- Johan (Max von Sydow)

Review By: Robert Edwards  
Published: April 28, 2004

Stars: Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann
Other Stars: Erland Josephson, Ingrid Thulin
Director: Ingmar Bergman

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (sexuality, horror themes)
Run Time: 01h:27m:21s
Release Date: April 20, 2004
UPC: 027616911377
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A B+A-B+ B

DVD Review

Swedish director Ingmar Bergman followed up his 1966 masterpiece Persona with Hour of the Wolf, one of the strangest works in his (or any other director's) oeuvre. The film begins in "true historical documentary" style, with a few text screens describing the disappearance of artist Johan Borg (Max von Sydow) from his home a few years earlier, and explaining that the present film is based on his wife Alma's (Liv Ullmann) accounts and his diary, which she has left to an unidentified "me". After the main titles, there is Alma on the screen, speaking directly to us of their trips to the island, and her husband's illness, his sleeplessness, and his increasing fright.

But Johan is not the only one who's frightened. Alma is too, when he shows her his sketches of an old lady who removes her face along with her hat, a bird man, the "meat eaters," and other demons haunting him, during one of his nightly vigils. And she's soon visited by a mysterious old lady who reveals things that she couldn't possibly know, such as the fact that Johan keeps a diary under his bed, the contents of which will prove to be revealing and deeply disturbing.

In Hour of the Wolf, Bergman draws on German expressionism and classical Hollywood horror films to create a universe that's sinister and darkly menacing. There's a crumbling castle, populated by strange aristocratic characters who are mysterious and threatening, who seem to be trying to separate Johan and Alma for purposes unknown. There are multiple hints of vampirism (indeed, one of the characters not only physically resembles Bela Lugosi, but is also lit in such a manner as to reinforce the resemblance), unhealthy sexuality, and a sort of power that enables these mysterious personages to see and perceive events beyond reality.

But Bergman isn't interested in creating another "classic" horror film; rather, in common with his other films from the second half of the 1960s, he's exploring the abnormal psyche and its eventual breakdown. Johan is deeply troubled, and it's apparent (or is it?) that these characters, and many of the events in the film, are merely manifestations of his own inner demons. But at the same time, they gain some sort of reality, because Alma shares some of Johan's nightmarish encounters, and even has one experience (her encounter with the old lady described above) which can only be seen as objective and not a projection of Johan's mind.

In a film that's filled with bizarre sequences, one stands out as more implicitly disturbing than the rest. (Warning: this paragraph contains a "spoiler." ) Johan tells Alma that he lied when he told her he was bit by a snake, and reveals that in fact he's guilty of a serious crime. He recounts the events (true or imagined?) in a flashback filled with overexposed whites, reminiscent of the look of the orthochromatic stock used in silent films. Other than Johan's description, there's only music on the soundtrack, and later, muffled laugh/moans. Johan is fishing on the cliffs when he's approached by a boy in a swimsuit, who curiously examines his paintings, then peers into his boots. The boy stands behind Johan, a bit too closely for comfort, as he reels in his line, lifts his fishing pole, and spins it in his hands, wrapping the line around his pole. The boy lies down on a rock, stretched out in a pose that can only be described as provocative, as Johan hurriedly puts on his shirt and boots. Johan approaches, starts struggling with the boy, and suddenly the boy bites his neck. Their struggles draw blood, which run downs the boy's back. This single sequence, which mingles an implied sexuality with the vampirism of classical Hollywood horror films, is almost overwhelming in its strangeness and implied perversion.

Sven Nykvist, Bergman's cameraman and close collaborator through most of the latter half of his career, is given full rein here, and the results are striking. The expressionistic lighting, framing and camera placement, and movement work together to create a universe that is exhilarating in its effectiveness. Practically every scene is a tour de force of the cinematographer's art, from Johan and Alma's dinner at the castle, where the camera swoops around the table, jumps from face to face, then abruptly stops in extreme closeup; to the simple scene where Johan's former mistress suddenly approaches him (again, we're not sure if it's a dream), and the camera quickly pans up and catches the halo of the sun ray's, mingling with her long blond hair, as she moves to him.

The cinematography isn't the only element of the film that calls attention to itself. In Persona, Bergman used such elements as Brechtian distanciation to lay bare the status of the film as a created object, rather than a representation of reality, and he continues in this modernist mode in Hour of the Wolf. The opening titles describing Johan's diary and the onscreen interviews with his wife Alma call attention to the fact that what we're seeing is a filmed version of supposedly "true" events, and not the events themselves. Bergman even includes the sounds of sets being built and other activity in a movie studio, including his own voice, behind the opening credits (which are displayed as simple white titles against a black background), and once we hear the words "And begin," the movie proper starts.

Although it's been called a horror film, Hour of the Wolf is a horror film as only Bergman could imagine one. The mixture of strange sequences, the ambiguity as to what's real and what's occuring in Johan's mind, the incredible cinematography and the great performances work together to create a film that is fascinating and unique.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The transfer is mostly very good, with a wide range from deep black to bright whites, which allow Sven Nykvist's cinematography to shine. There's a fair amount of detail in the image, although some scenes are slightly soft, and there's some grain in many of the scenes.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Swedishno

Audio Transfer Review: For a film of its vintage, the sound is at all times clear, with no distortion or harshness. The atonal soundtrack comes through well, adding immensely to the effectiveness of the film.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Bergman biographer Marc Gervais
Packaging: Keep Case
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. On-Camera Interview with Liv Ullmann
  2. On-Camera Interview with Erlan Josephson
  3. Photo Gallery - Ingmar Bergman at Work
  4. Photo Gallery - Hour of the Wolf
  5. Printed insert with chapter listing
Extras Review: The original U.S. theatrical trailer is a bit soft but is otherwise in excellent condition. It contains many spoilers from the film, so is best viewed afterwards. The Ingmar Bergman at Work photo gallery contains 73 behind-the-scenes photos of Berman and his actors on the set of Hour of the Wolf, but many of these are near duplicates. The 42 photos and artwork in the Hour of the Wolf Photo Gallery are repeated on the box set's Supplemental Materials disc.

In her brief (2m:55s) interview, Liv Ullmann recounts an amusing anecdote about a Ouija-like game that she, Sven Nykvist, and Bibi Andersson used to play. Erland Josephson (who played Baron von Merkens in the film) comments on his early work with Bergman in the theater and on film, in a similarly short (3m:35s) interview.

University of Montreal film professor Marc Gervais contributes an interesting and informative commentary track. He discusses how Bergman used cinematic devices to make obvious the film's nature as a film and not a realistic story, cinematographer Sven Nykvist's lighting and camerawork, some comments about Berman's and his actor's lives, and places the film both in context with other Bergman films and the sources it draws upon.

The 26m:11s documentary The Search for Sanity is not especially worthwhile. It mixes clips from the film, excerpts from a 1970 interview with Bergman that has nothing to do with the film, stills, excerpts from interviews with Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, and comments by Marc Gervais. Gervais' observations are mostly repeats from his commentary track, but the remarks by Ullmann and Josephson are more interesting. Ullmann recounts a bit of her personal life, her relationship with Bergman, and her friendship with Max von Sydow around the time of the filming, and comments on the film and her role in it. Both she and Josephson discuss acting and their own approaches the art.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

Director Ingmar Bergman's sole foray into the horror genre draws on German expressionism and classic Hollywood, but is instantly identifiable as his own creation in its examination of the inner world of a man slowly falling into madness. The superb cinematography, good transfer, and interesting extras make this a winning package for not only Bergman fans, but those interested in horror and art films alike.


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