Charlie Kaufman, the writer behind Adaptation and Being John Malkovich, once told the world he was writing a horror movie. Considering the content of his earlier work, the world responded with eager curiosity of what a Kaufman horror could possibly look like. When he emerged, that horror film was titled Synecdoche, New York, the story of a theatre director who attempts to create a life sized replica of New York, and his own personal life, for his new play.
When questioned how that film could possibly be identified as horror, he simply answered: “Issues of mortality, and illness, and relationship struggles, and loneliness – all those things seemed like what’s really scary as opposed to horror movie stuff – so I started thinking about that, and this film is what came of it.” This idea of real horror, real fear of real life, is not exclusive to Kaufman. In 1968, forty years earlier, Ingmar Bergman created a film titled Hour of the Wolf, this week’s Netflix pick, and tackled very similar horror themes.
Hour of the Wolf follows Johan Borg(Max von Sydow) and his wife Alma Borg(Liv Ullman) as they arrive at an especially foreboding island. They arrive there in order for Johan, a world renowned artist, to be able to focus on his projects without distraction. What follows is a study of human relationships and how our past decisions and inner thoughts can affect them. Doesn’t sound very horror-ish does it? Well it is, I promise. The horror comes in the skill of Ingmar Bergman. The composition of Hour of the Wolf is always uncomfortable, if not completely unnerving. The most innocuous of environmental surroundings is somehow threatening through the entirety of the film.
The actual “horror” visuals come within the last thirty minutes of the film, and they are, in fact, horrific. From a face being torn off to a scene that could have easily been in Rosemary’s Baby, Bergman obviously understands horrific imagery. What Bergman understands even further, though, is that imagery must mean something. There is nothing in the Hour of the Wolf that could be identified as a jump scare. Every horrific thing is a metaphor for the true terror Bergman is exploring, the human mind and its relationships.
All of the horror is stimulated by the mind and past experiences of Johan. He is experiencing an inner turmoil that is not only torturing him, but his wife as well. His past mistakes and digressions have followed him, possibly on a literal level, and threaten to ruin everything he knows. In that sense it is very comparable to Kubrick’s The Shining; a man suffering with his demons finds that those same demons are demanding retribution from his family as well.
Hour of the Wolf is not a light movie. It isn’t the kind of horror movie you can watch with friends, jumping at the things popping out of the dark corners of the screen, only to laugh at it later. Nothing in Hour of the Wolf jumps out at you. Nothing is chasing anyone. And nothing will make you laugh later. The only terror found within is the horror of your own mind. And, really, what’s scarier than that?