Along with Through a Glass Darkly, Hour of the Wolf demonstrates that Ingmar Bergman had a deep sensitivity for severe mental illness, and was perhaps the only filmmaker until Lodge Kerrigan who seemed to understand it at all. Early cinema, and, for that matter, most modern cinema, tends to whittle the subject down to broad stereotypes and extreme behaviors, which may not always be entirely inaccurate but certainly lack nuance. Horror cinema tends to be at its most frightening when it’s built on restrained tension and release, and nothing screams tension like a slow descent into madness; it’s unfortunate, then, that cinema’s track record with mental illness is so spotty, as psychosis is undoubtedly one of the most terrifying realities that humanity knows. And while we’re typically encouraged to identify with the sane person(s) who are pitted against the insane, it’s a rare film that invites us to do the opposite.
Ingmar Bergman really had no equal when it came to exploring the human mind, and he arguably delivered the most crushing monologues in cinematic history. Hour of the Wolf is no exception, with chilling scenes like Johan’s recounting of a dream (or memory?) of killing a small child at the beach, with an aghast Alma listening to the story in the shadows. Even in this pairing of disturbed souls, Bergman always showed us how lonely human existence is, characterized mostly by our desperate (and almost always futile) fumblings towards or away from others; a philosophy that seems a natural fit with the mentally ill, who are so often misunderstood and rejected.
Where Hour of the Wolf goes right is in its merging of accurate human psychopathology and classic horror’s pitch-perfect tone; a tone based on slow build-up, unsettling juxtapositions of images, and reliance on the audience’s fear of the unknown, rather than on shock factor. It seems like an obvious pairing, and yet almost never seems to happen, even today. These characters inhabit a bizarre psychological fantasy world, but it feels real, and it’s scary.