Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1968) is often referred to as the director’s only horror picture. Actually, that seems a bit wide of the mark to me. It would not be inapt to call The Seventh Seal (1957) and The Magician (1958) horror films, while The Devil’s Eye (1960) is a playful one. The Virgin Spring (1959) might qualify, too — and not just because it was the inspiration for Wes Craven’s 1972 shocker The Last House on the Left. (Whether or not Bergman appreciated this is, so far as I know, unknown.) For that matter there are nightmarish qualities in Wild Strawberries (1958) and Persona (1966). While Hour of the Wolf is perhaps the closest Bergman ever came to a straightforward horror movie, the genre has always hovered around his work. Hour of the Wolf basically tells the story of an artist’s (Max von Sydow) descent into madness while stuck on an island with only his wife (Liv Ullman) and a group of degenerate — or at least very decadent — upper-class neighbors, whose exact reality is often open to question. (Kubrick’s film of The Shining perhaps owes nearly as much to this film as it does the Stephen King novel on which it’s based.)
Since this is horror à la Bergman, it goes almost without saying that the storytelling refuses to be rushed and that more questions are raised than answered. But its horror set pieces are second to none — with the murder (if indeed it actually happened) of a young boy being among the most striking and unusual scenes Bergman ever did, while the big scene where the artist is set up to confront the corpse of an old lover is remarkably unsettling — and its escalating dread ending in stark terror is more horrific than anything in most straight-up horror movies. The decadent rich people are almost like something out of Fellini (and Bergman presents them in what might be called a Felliniesque manner), but in more nightmarish terms. (They may also remind some viewers of the denizens of the creepy apartment building in Michael Winner’s 1977 film, The Sentinel.) It may not be among Bergman’s absolute best works, but that still makes it better than the best of most filmmakers.
Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present Hour of the Wolf Friday, Nov. 21, at 8 p.m. at Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St., River Arts District (upstairs in the Railroad Library). Info: 273-3332, www.ashevillecourtyard.com