Hour Of The Wolf, and Other Surrealist Horror Films

Hour Of The Wolf is a surrealist horror that gets under the skin. And it's not alone...

There are some terrible images that have been placed in my head over the years by films. They come back to haunt me, and are unforgettable.

The unique jolt of seeing something so strange, so horrifying, on the screen that it cannot be forgotten is a powerful experience, and lasts far beyond the roll of the credits. One that contains more than a few images that have retained their ability to upset and unbalance me since first seeing them is a film that was made by a director who is often thought of as a maker of psychological dramas rather than horror films. I’m talking about Ingmar Bergman’s 1968 film, the disturbing and weird Hour Of The Wolf.

Ingmar Bergman’s films are perhaps most often thought of as psychological dramas, but in a career spanning over sixty years he touched on many genres and emotions, dealing with themes of madness, grief, faith, death, and often what it meant to document these things as an artist. Sometimes his films have a slowness and a stillness to them, which builds intensity to a level that makes them feel profound – it’s a quality that is open to mockery, and also to claims of being impenetrable to the viewer, or even boring. But Hour Of The Wolf uses that unique stillness and intimacy to create and enhance fear, and it does a really good job of it.

Johan (played by Max Von Sydow) is a famous painter who has retreated to a small island in order to escape the world after some sort of breakdown or incident that is never made clear. He takes Alma (Liv Ullmann), his pregnant partner, with him. She loves him completely, and stays with him when his insomnia keeps him awake through the darkest hour of the night – the hour of the wolf. Johan tells her, in his quiet, hypnotic voice:

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“The hour of the wolf is the hour between night and dawn. It is the hour when most people die, when sleep is the deepest, when nightmares feel most real. It is the hour when the demons are most powerful. The hour of the wolf is also the hour when most children are born.”

He tells her of visions of the past – horrible things that might have happened to him or might be the product of his imagination – and he sketches characters who appear to him (and to us), giving them names such as The Bird-Man and The Lady With a Hat. Alma worries she is losing him to madness, a feeling compounded when they are invited to a nearby castle to have dinner with the strange residents, who are fans of Johan’s work. Corruption and revulsion lurk in the castle, pushing Johan further towards insanity. He sees, and takes part in, inexplicable acts.

Often the connection between sex and horror works incredibly successfully within a surrealist framework, and that is certainly true of Hour Of The Wolf. Johan’s muse appears at the castle – a woman with whom he had a long affair. One of the most memorably strange sequences involves the preparations he goes through to meet her again, and what happens at that meeting still haunts me. Other films that have used the connection in disturbing ways include Possession (1981), Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders (1970), and the Latvian erotic art-house horror creature-feature The Spider (1991) – all of these are well worth a watch if surrealism isn’t a concept that leaves you cold, although after sitting through all of these you might find yourself searching for meaning where none is ostensibly given. Yes, it’s deeply disturbing – but what does it all mean?

Well, perhaps questions like this aren’t meant to be answered. Surrealism needs no explanation. In fact, British fantasy author Graham Joyce claimed it needed the exact opposite to be effective upon us. He wrote: “The over-intellectualization of Surrealism can be a bromide. A dream interpreted is a deflated dream.”

And so maybe its better to not attempt to understand everything that happens in Hour Of The Wolf, or indeed in any surrealist horror film. Examined in the cold light of reality, films by David Lynch or Ben Wheatley, say, lose much of their potency. The shock of seeing something surreal is so frightening simply because it can’t be adequately explained, and these make up some of the most enduring images of cinema: the eye-razoring moment of Un Chien Andalou (1929) or the final moments of Dead Of Night (1945) are just as disturbing today, and yet to talk about them doesn’t put across why they are so frightening, rather than simply absurd. So to talk about the meaning behind Hour Of The Wolf robs it of some of its power, I think, and I wonder if it’s best not to view it in the context of being a Bergman film, or a psychological drama.

Roger Ebert reviewed Hour Of The Wolf, and related how the audience “snickered and whispered” through it. He said he thought it was the kind of film that needed a “creative act of imagination” from the audience, in much the same way that watching a flight of fantasy such as Snow White And The Seven Dwarves requires collusion from the watcher – you have to be in the moment of the film without questions, and without putting the demands of explanation upon it. I think that’s absolutely true. When we’re watching a film, any film, and we find it lacking in some respect the first thing many of us do is start to pick holes in its realism. But if we’re enjoying the experience we’ll let many such holes go by without comment.

Why does the Prince’s kiss save Snow White, and why is there a lady in the radiator? Why does Johan see these strange apparitions? I don’t know. But when I close my eyes, sometimes, late at night, I can still see them too. Perhaps that’s as much of an explanation as I’m ever going to get.

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