Vargtimmen (The Wolf’s Hour) (Ingmar Bergman, 1968)
It was a rare thing indeed for Ingmar Bergman to wander into the realms of the conventional horror film. (Though one could argue that Persona and The Seventh Seal would both qualify, I guess.) In fact, the plot summary for Vargtimmen on IMDB calls this “Bergman’s only horror film.” I wish that were not the case, since it is such a very good one. Though I can content myself with Persona and The Seventh Seal, I guess.
Plot: The Borgs, Johan (Max von Sydow) and Alma (Liv Ullman), are vacationing on a secluded island. Johan, an artist, is attempting to work through a creative block. Alma, pregnant, is just happy to have gotten away from society for a while. All is well and good, but during the hour of the wolf—that hour just before dawn, when the world is darkest—Johan begins to wake in terror, and starts relating to Alma horrific tales from his past. The only other inhabitant of the island is Baron von Merkens (Erland Josephson), a seemingly friendly sort who keeps a sort of traveling, ever-shifting cabal around him of specialists is various occult knowledges, be they historians or qabbalists or psychotherapists (remember the timeframe here, this is back when psychotherapy was still considered witch doctors’ work), etc. von Merkens invites the Borgs to a party, and they accept. But after talking to the guests, Johan begins to wonder: could these people be responsible for his nightmares? And if they are capable of influencing his dreams, how much else can they do to his mind?
You cannot make a movie with Max von Sydow, Liv Ullman, and Erland Josephson and have it not be excellent. At least, Ingmar Bergman couldn’t; those three were a big part of his regular stable of go-to actors, and they always turned in their best work for the man. Vargtimmen is certainly no exception to that rule. Is Johan Borg just suffering from insomnia brought on by his nightmares, or is he truly being driven insane by the cabal? Von Sydow knows how to play that fine line, and he does it perfectly. Josephson manages to be both urbane and frightening, though not in the same way as, say, Bela Lugosi in Dracula; von Merkens is the same type of character, but Josephson plays him almost the opposite of Lugosi’s approach. Nicely-played indeed. If there’s a weak link in this trio it’s Ullman, though I stress that “weak” is a relative term, and Ullman is as great an actor here as she ever was; the weakness lies in the fact that for much of the film, the script doesn’t actually give her a great deal to do. The movie ultimately becomes a (-n imagined?) battle of wills between von Sydow—who is obviously ill-equipped, through sleeplessness and a host of childhood traumas he’s only starting to work through (there’s that psychotherapy thing again!)—and Josephson, with Ullman as… not necessarily the spoils of war, nor just collateral damage. One does not put a pregnant woman in a movie without a reason.
Gordon Thomas, in his essay on Vargtimmen in Bright Lights, says of Ullman’s character’s presence that she’s basically here because she’s reflecting the state of Bergman’s relationship with her at the time: “…which was, well, not good. In one interview offered by MGM as a special feature in their DVD, Liv says that at that point in her life she was ‘at peace’ with the world, while her genius boyfriend was not. The whole angst-ridden trip was not for her, so: splitsville.” Needless to say, this makes Johan into Bergman, and really, is there a better way of describing Johan than a man who is profoundly ill at ease with the world and his place in it? After all, we open with the news that Johan has mysteriously disappeared; the first scene is Alma wandering through the now-empty hut where they stayed, talking directly to the camera as if she were giving an interview to Unsolved Mysteries or The First 48. And when one is that ill at ease with the world, to quote another man profoundly ill at ease with the world, “And like that…poof…he’s gone.” *** ½