If horror films, at their most basic level, engage our most primal fears about who we are and what could threaten us then the great Swedish auteur, Ingmar Bergman, might just have been overlooked as a master proponent of this cinematic exercise. While Bergman only made one official horror movie (1968’s Hour of the Wolf in titular reference here), much of his work is inflected with genre tropes and his searing use of abstract imagery may well have prefigured the artistic nightmares of David Lynch and David Cronenberg.
Bergman is thematically associated with art-house philosophising, spiritual emptiness and human drama but his films have often been at their most potent when exploring the darkness that we normally link to horror masters such as John Carpenter, whose sublime 1982 film The Thing shares much of Bergman’s concerns about group dynamics. While Hour of the Wolf is the most explicit in creating a classic horror scenario (an artist losing his grip on reality) you can find other distinct genre traditions in his more oblique narratives. Take 1980s From The Life of the Marionettes which, with its warning light reds and dangerous, menacing close-ups reminds us of the mesmeric nightmares of Lynchian cinema. Or Cries and Whispers (1972), ostensibly a family drama about the ravages of terminal illness, but structured like a haunted house movie with the protagonists all trapped within the confines of a location as an unseen foe rips them apart. Even his celebrated masterpiece, the existential road movie Wild Strawberries (1957), plays liberally with a Bunuellian sense of the macabre, particularly in the compelling dream sequence at the beginning (the turning over of the body sends chills down my spine every time).
Bergman also evidenced interpretations of both the classic horror literature of Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker and thereby the golden era of Hammer House, by fashioning his own monster in Winter Light (1963). In small town priest Tomas Ericsson (a consummate performance of existential falling out from Gunnar Bjornstrand), Bergman made his own ‘Frankenstein’s monster’: a cold, spiritually empty individual who is seemingly only able to ape human behaviour from observation, not intrinsic empathy. Wanting to belong to the greater society, he is unable to truly relate and so ends up destroying everything around him.
But perhaps Bergman’s greatest employments of horror come in his three films The Virgin Spring (1960), Persona (1966) and The Seventh Seal (1957). Of this trio, The Virgin Spring is structurally most recognisable as a horror film (and was in fact the inspiration for Wes Craven’s Last House On The Left, 1972) as a patriarch wreaks vengeance on the miscreants who raped and killed his daughter. But Persona, about an actress and a nurse who start to share consciousness during a respite retreat, has something of the terrifying duality of Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988) and the concept of split personalities is no stranger to horror cinema. And the bleak, plague-ridden vista of The Seventh Seal, brooding with a superstitious fear in a medieval world where science has not yet developed to offer the comfort of knowledge, has a terror that is so fundamental to our own sense of self, it has more effect than any splatter-house flick or ghost thriller that you might more readily associate with horror. The film is even recalled through Christopher Smith’s similarly themed Black Death (2010) and perhaps the sight of Death playing games with mortality is crucial to all truly efficacious spine-tinglers.
In conclusion, I turn to Bergman’s little-discussed ‘film-within-a-film’ riff Prison (1949) that I think defines the great filmmaker’s role in shaping horror cinema indefinitely. On the surface, we can see many different genres and many different stories at work in Bergman’s cinema but, as one character remarks at the start of Prison to the notion that Earth is actually hell, “Satan doesn’t have a platform, that’s the secret of his success.” There is a devil in all great horror cinema, the devil of the dark heart of humanity, and it is this that simmers under the surface of Bergman’s tremendous body of work.