The Limit Has Finally Been Transgressed: An Appreciation of “Hour of the Wolf”
Hälsningar, minions! Today we’re delving into the surreal and arty waters of the Ingmar Bergman oeuvre, and even though I’m gonna try REALLY hard to not make any Swedish Chef jokes, I’m not going to promise anything, because y’all know how I roll.
Hour of the Wolf (or Vargtimmen in Swedish) was released in 1968, and is probably the closest thing to a straight horror movie that Bergman ever did. That said, it’s still miles away from a traditional horror flick of the era, being more like an intensely eerie, psychological mindfuck with some really, really disturbing imagery; essentially, it’s film as wide-awake nightmare. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my love of ambiguity and surrealism in horror, and here is one of the best examples I have yet seen; in execution and implication, it’s absolutely skin-crawling. It’s also fairly obvious that this film was a pretty big influence on David Lynch’s Eraserhead, and in its themes of spiraling madness it also bears something of a resemblance to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion.
The story concerns an artist, Johan Borg (Max von Sydow), who is vacationing at a remote island cottage with his pregnant wife Alma (Liv Ullman). At the beginning of the movie, Alma is talking directly to the camera about the disappearance of her husband, as if she is being interviewed for a documentary. The remainder of the film is told in flashback; we see the bizarre disintegration of Johan’s mental state, and wonder how much of what we’re seeing is real.
What makes this film so unsettling is its resolute refusal to explain itself. Johan interacts with strange people as he walks around the island, and he seems to think that they are demons, even though Alma can see them too; and for most of the movie, they seem like real people, albeit really skeevy ones. Johan has drawn all of them in his sketchbook, though the viewer never sees the drawings, but only Alma’s horrified reactions to them. He also has names for them, like the Bird-Man, the Schoolmaster, and The Lady with a Hat (about whom Johan once tells Alma that you don’t want to be around when the lady takes the hat off, because the whole face comes off with it. NOPE).
At one stage, a man named Baron von Merkans invites Johan and Alma to his nearby castle for a party, and when they attend, it’s the trippiest get-together ever, as all the guests laugh bizarrely, yammer on about meaningless topics, and overpraise Johan’s art to a really uncomfortable degree. Everyone seems hostile and cruel, as though they’re mocking him, but no reason for this is apparent. One of the women at the party shows Johan and Alma her bedroom, in which hangs a huge portrait of a woman named Veronica Vogler, who was apparently Johan’s ex-lover, though it is never clarified if she was a real person, or another figment of Johan’s crumbling imagination.
Johan suffers terribly from insomnia, and Alma often stays awake with him in support. During the long nights, they have some extremely disturbing discussions. In one very eerie scene, Johan tells Alma about a trauma from his childhood in which he was locked up in a closet with what he thought was a small person who wanted to gnaw his toes off. He also confesses to a possibly fictitious incident some time before whereby he murdered a little boy while out fishing. During this conversation, he clarifies the meaning of the phrase “hour of the wolf,” which according to folklore is the hour in the middle of the night when most deaths and births take place. Much of the horror in the movie is conveyed in these weird conversations, though there are plenty of uncanny visuals to highlight the nightmarish narrative, like a man suddenly walking up a wall and across a ceiling, or a woman pulling off her face and popping her eyeballs into a wine glass.
If you’re getting the sense that this is a really bizarre, disjointed film, then you’re entirely correct, but its inexplicable strangeness is very, VERY effective in making this one of the most haunting and genuinely unnerving films I’ve ever seen (and that’s saying a lot). The underlying themes of the film seem to tie in with the fine line between artistic genius and madness, with the power of deep-seated fears and shameful desires to unhinge the mind, and with the possibility that insanity may be contagious, as Alma wonders at the end whether her love for Johan caused her to share in his delusions. There is also a repeating motif of eating or biting—the demonic people that Johan sees are portrayed as something akin to vampires or birds of prey, and during the flashback scene where Johan is recounting his murder of the boy at the seashore, the boy bites him several times during the struggle. Indeed, the working title of the manuscript was “The Maneaters,” so perhaps there is some reference here to the way that fears and traumas, whether real or imagined, can eat away at one’s sanity.
All in all, not a film for everyone, obviously, but I found it an intense experience, so disquieting and ominous that it was sort of distressing to watch. Its slow pace and stark cinematography only added to the uncomfortable atmosphere. If you haven’t seen it, and are a fan of Bergman’s other films, or just like surrealistic horror in general, I would definitely recommend it, even though it legit creeped me the fuck out. In fact, I know I said I was gonna try not to, but I need a laugh after watching it, so here we go.
Hulu Horror Double Feature: Occupant and Knife Edge
Okay, it’s Sunday, I’m hung over and don’t really feel like moving around too much, so that must mean it’s time for me to zone out in front of a couple random horror flicks on Hulu and then pass the savings on to you. So here we go.
First up, Occupant from 2011. I just picked this one because the cover looked eerie and interesting, and I got lucky, because it turned out to be a great choice. As I was watching it, I was reminded very strongly of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (and Repulsion, to a lesser extent), which is a very good thing, and afterwards I was browsing some other reviews of it and noticed that pretty much everyone else had also picked up on the resemblance. However, it seemed like most of the other reviewers thought the film was just mediocre or left too many unanswered questions. I had a much different opinion.
The setup is basically this: Danny is a New Yorker who is summoned to his grandmother’s huge, beautiful apartment after she dies of a heart attack. The aggressively helpful doorman Joe tells Danny that the apartment was rent-controlled; granny was only paying $675 a month for a 3,500-square-foot Manhattan showplace that would easily go for ten grand a month on today’s market. Joe sets up a meeting with a lawyer friend, and the lawyer tells Danny that if he is willing to essentially squat in the apartment for twelve days until a court order comes through granting him legal tenancy, then Danny can have the apartment at the same crazy-low rent, since Danny is the grandmother’s only living relative. The only catch is, the building management will obviously not be happy with this little loophole arrangement, so Danny cannot leave the apartment for any reason until he gets the court order, or the management will lock him out. Joe and the lawyer tell Danny to lock himself into the apartment and not let anyone in until everything is sorted. In the meantime, Joe will bring him groceries and anything else he might need. Danny, knowing a great fucking deal when he sees one, agrees.
And then, because this is a horror movie, things start to get strange. I don’t want to spoil too much (though I can’t really help but spoil it a little bit), because I do recommend you guys watch it, but if you saw The Tenant, you know what kind of creepy, ambiguous vibe you can expect. Just like in the Polanski film, you’re really not sure if there’s something supernatural going on in the apartment, if Danny is simply losing his mind due to cabin fever and lack of sufficient human interaction, if Joe and the lawyer are messing with his head for some bizarre reason, or if it’s some combination of those scenarios. Everyone Danny interacts with is shifty and weird, and there seemingly isn’t any reason for it. There are lots of little unexplained details that could suggest any number of things, and although a lot of reviewers complained about these, I actually thought they were very effective in making the movie such a riveting, unsettling experience. For instance, why was Joe so adamant that Danny live in the apartment, and what was with his oddly paternalistic and almost sexual interest in Danny? What was up with the girl that was “stalking” him for her vlog? What was up with the painter who fell to his death? Why were there scratch marks on the headboard of his grandmother’s bed? Did his grandmother really die of a heart attack? What was with the mobbed-up exterminator guy, and why did he spray the cat with insecticide? Were the cable guy and pizza guy really there because Danny called them and forgot, or was someone sending them there to lure him out? What was with that hole in the wall in the closet that looked like it was breathing? What about the neighbor who claimed he’d met Danny before, even though Danny didn’t remember it? Nothing is as it seems, and none of the weirdness really has any definitive answers. That might piss some people off, but I found it intriguing, and in fact, the whole WTF vibe of the movie was actually my favorite thing about it; it was all so pleasantly disorienting and claustrophobic. Polanski comparisons aside, it actually also reminded me of one of my own short stories that I wrote many years ago, called “Three Stories Down” (available in my Associated Villainies collection), in which I tried to conjure up a similar surrealistic feeling (also in an apartment building setting, as it happens) without really explaining anything outright.
In sum, I heartily recommend this to Polanski fans, or people who like their horror with a healthy dollop of psychological ambiguity and don’t need everything to be clear cut.
Next up is a British supernatural-type thriller, Knife Edge from 2009. It’s about an English woman named Emma who leaves her job as a hotshot Wall Street stockbroker after marrying a wealthy Frenchman named Henri. Henri takes Emma and her son from a previous marriage Thomas back to England to live in a massive country mansion he purchased three years previously. Once there, Emma begins to see visions and hear things in the house that lead her to believe that it is haunted. Henri doesn’t believe her, the marriage starts to fall apart, and then things get really convoluted and increasingly ridiculous until it all ends with an over-the-top kinda murdery flourish.
This one actually wasn’t bad; I enjoyed it and the mystery kept me interested all the way through. Director Anthony Hickox has done some work in the horror genre before (Waxwork and Hellraiser 3, for example), and I guess this was something of an anticipated return to form for him, but I definitely felt like something was lacking with this film. The acting was pretty uneven, and the pacing felt a bit strange, too rushed in places where more depth would have been appreciated. The premise also wasn’t terribly original, it must be said; there was the standard old British mansion, creepy dolls and trees, a kid’s “imaginary” friend, psychic visions of a past tragedy, the unclear motives of everyone around the protagonist. The answer to the mystery, while I didn’t completely figure it out beforehand, strained my credulity a bit; it just seemed far too complicated and silly a scheme to ever work the way it was supposed to. There were some decent scares, a bit of gore, and some nicely eerie imagery, but overall I found it just sort of middle-of-the-road. I’d recommend it if you’re into British murder mysteries and don’t mind some overwrought melodrama; you’ll probably enjoy it if you don’t expect too much. It honestly seemed more like an episode of a mystery-type TV show than a movie. If that doesn’t turn you off, then by all means, knock yourself out.
That’s all for this double feature installment. Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.
The Goddess’s Favorite Creepy Movie Scenes, or Why You Should Keep Your Finger Out of That Hole in the Wall
There are a few parameters I’d like to establish with this series, now that I’ve thought about the scenes I’d like to feature and everything they have in common. As far as possible, I want to avoid including scenes that are nothing more than “jump scares.” Don’t get me wrong, these can be terribly effective when done right, and I’m not saying that I will never feature one in this series (in fact, I can already think of one or two I might want to do a writeup on at some point), but the bulk of the scenes I’ll describe will fall more into the category of subtle, creeping dread, simply because I find these types of scenes scarier and more prone to haunt the memory than scenes of shocking gore, for example (although I like my shocking gore as much as the next girl). I’ve always been of the opinion that the best horror comes completely from suggestion and atmosphere; once you’ve shown the monster in all its tentacled and bloody glory, you’ve effectively pissed the scare down your leg. Real terror comes from the not-knowing.
Additionally, I’d also like to focus more on scenes that don’t get quite as much attention as some of the better-known “scariest horror scenes.” It’s universally accepted, for instance, that many scenes from The Shining are sinister as fuck (redrum, the twins, room 237, the furry blow job, all work and no play), but since many of these appear on lists all over internet-land, I will probably refrain from beating a dead horse here. Everything I would have liked to say about these scenes has already been said better by someone else. I’m also probably going to stick with older, more “classic” films, not only because they’re the ones I tend to prefer, but also because I’m far more familiar with them as a whole.
With that housekeeping out of the way, let’s get on with the next entry in the series!
Roman Polanski, despite his rather grave personal failings, has made some absolutely champion horror films, his particular genius lying in his portrayal of claustrophobic paranoia and spiraling descents into madness.
The Tenant (1976) was the third film in Polanski’s so-called ‘apartment trilogy,’ which also included Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968), both of which will likely turn up in this series at one time or another. The reader can check Wikipedia for a complete plot synopsis, but in brief, The Tenant is the story of a Polish immigrant, Trelkovsky (played by Polanski himself) who moves into a Paris apartment that was previously occupied by an Egyptologist named Simone who slowly went batshit and tried to end it all by leaping out of the apartment window. As the movie goes on, it becomes clear that Trelkovsky is either on his way to repeating the cycle of madness, or he has the most relentlessly malevolent neighbors on earth.
This ambiguity, also present in the other two films in the ‘trilogy,’ is one of the best aspects of The Tenant, and also one of my favorite horror themes in general. Is Trelkovsky simply losing his mind as Simone apparently did (raising the possibility that the apartment itself is somehow causing the crazy), or was there some kind of organized plot by the other tenants to eventually drive them both to suicide? Judging from what happens in the film, it could go either way, though I tend to fall into the “descending madness” camp.
There is really just one scene I’d like to call out, though the film is really an embarrassment of riches on this score. An atmosphere of close, dingy dread infuses every scene with jittery unease, and there is ample terror conveyed by simple shots of grungy shutters or twitching curtains. It’s bad enough that Trelkovsky has already discovered that the wardrobe in the apartment is still full of Simone’s clothes, that he can clearly see into the bathroom across the courtyard, and that the glass awning a couple floors beneath his window still bears a ragged hole where Simone’s body crashed through it. But then comes this unsettling development…
Trelkovsky is moving the wardrobe when he happens to glance out the window. He freezes. For there, standing in the bathroom window across the courtyard, is a woman. She is just standing there, staring at him. She is dressed in a long black coat and a black hat. Her face is blurred, but she looks startlingly like his crotchety landlady (played by Shelley Winters), feeding his burgeoning paranoia that the landlady and the other tenants are actively trying to freak him out. Troubled, he turns back to the wardrobe, and it’s then that he spots a hole in the wall that looks to be stuffed with a wad of cotton. He pulls the cotton out and peers into the hole with his lighter. He thinks he sees something, so he pokes his finger in there. And what he yanks out is a tooth.
A FUCKING TOOTH. A long, white canine tooth, clearly extracted at the root. Trelkovsky stares at it for a moment before dropping it into a nearby ashtray. Then, looking down at the tooth with a slightly disgusted expression on his face, he picks the tooth back up and sticks it back into the hole in the wall, and replaces the cotton.
The reason I love this scene so much is that it’s done so elegantly. There is no dialogue, and the background score (which sounds like an oboe) is suitably downbeat and eerie. Besides that, finding a vaguely squicky object left by persons unknown in a place where you weren’t expecting to find such a thing is a fantastic way of building suspense and keeping the viewer guessing. What is the tooth doing in a hole in the wall behind a wardrobe? Is it Simone’s? Did she pull it herself or did someone else do it? And why did she keep it? The imagination races to make sense of the grisly little relic. The appearance of the tooth is never fully explained, and that is what gives the scene this disquieting aura of menace.
There is a later, similar scene that I’d like to touch on as well. Trelkovsky is lying in bed, sick and slightly delirious. Eventually he leaves his apartment to visit the bathroom, making his way through the shadowed halls. When he gets there, a slow pan around the room reveals that someone has very meticulously carved hieroglyphics all over the walls. This is ominous enough to make Trelkovsky bolt from the room and hightail it back to his apartment, but when he gets back there, he glances out the window and sees someone standing in the bathroom he just left seconds before. And this someone is completely wrapped in bandages, like a mummy. Just standing there. Then, the figure slowly begins to unwrap the bandages from around her head, and it’s a weirdly smiling woman, Simone. Her smile reveals a missing canine tooth. This scene is also a great thematic callback, as not only was Simone an Egyptologist, but she was also in a full body cast the first time Trelkovsky saw her (though she died later from her injuries).
Please keep reading and I’ll keep putting these up as I think of them! You can also send me suggestions for scenes you like and why you thought they were particularly scary, or argue with me about the ones I picked. Thanks for your patronage. 😀