Ingmar Bergman’s stunning film, The Virgin Spring, has been twice adapted into the horror genre, in Wes Craven’s 1972 film The Last House on the Left and the 2009 remake of the same name. And while the original film carries no obvious stylistic markers of the genre into which it would be so readily appropriated, one can instantly see why the story was chosen as a vehicle to frighten and overawe.
The Virgin Spring is very different from most horror films, yet similar in one very significant way. Many of Virgin’s original audience knew going in about the moment that comprised its central plot turn. The film was notorious in its time—released in 1960—for portraying the rape and murder of a young girl with a cinematic style unflinchingly devoid of embellishment. Doubtless, these original viewers’ experience was not unlike that of the modern horror film enthusiast, peeking through fingers at the moment of truth. Bergman, like the makers of such classic horror movies as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Carrie, seems to have been aware that the potential for violence is always much more menacing than the reality of it.
Horror films are often highly stylized, yet meant to mimic those moments of personal fear that distort the ordinary. The reality that their engorged and slavering monsters are meant to be projected against is that which the viewer brings in to the theater; no establishment of setting is usually required with horror films, as their menace is most often archtypical to the culture where it is viewed. The most effective horror movies are those recalled after viewing in moments alone at home, in darkened hallways, in too-quiet houses when no one else is around. Blood splatters the horror movie screen, flooding the viewer’s world, heightening fears already conceived; they are the shadows of the streets outside that are elongated.
Bergman’s “horror film,” on the other hand, is set in medieval Sweden, not exactly the playground of the modern man. Therefore in the depiction of terrible images, it needs a firmly established cinematic description of a reality to be corrupted. While the film seems to take pains in suggesting that even if the “realities” so vulnerable to violence may change with the years, corruption itself is remarkably similar in every age.
Bergman employs no camera tricks to heighten drama or suspense beyond his standard imbuing of the goings on with a kind of thematic, almost literary “weight,” that which holds significance to the violent act but only through several layers of meaning, certainly not as with more typical horror tropes, like “mirror gags” or atmospheric music. Only the fact of extreme violence positions Bergman’s nuanced, much more cerebral technique within horror’s purview. Whatever is shown in frame, however ordinary or banal, all is set on edge and filtered through a reality fraught with danger. Yet “that which is horrific” is not localized to a monster; all are monsters in Bergman’s imagined world, even victimized children. This is not to say that his world is not subject to the supernatural, but that the supernatural is more personally defined. One faces monsters within, and this often alone.
Bergman’s film also benefits from a kind of tension between form and content. As those visceral elements that would seem so at home in a horror film rub against those more cerebral, more “heavy” in theme, a competition arises that initially unsettles but ultimately resolves in an image at once violent and ecstatic. I refer here to the gushing forth of the titular “spring.” The film is circuitous in execution of theme, giving way to many backtracks and false starts, yet also straight-forward in plot and characterization. A film that would take a story easily adapted to the horror genre and treat it with such serious-mindedness—as in the long scene where Max von Sydow’s character uproots the tree to find twigs for his pre-vengeance ablutions, or that where the victimized girl has a most pleasant luncheon with her murderers—is in the business of upsetting expectations, of hitting on multiple levels at once. These elements at times seems at cross purposes but in the end give texture and nuance to the thrust of a quite simple story.
A summing up of the film would read: “Once upon a time in Medieval Sweden, a maiden is raped and murdered by marauding goat herders. The murderers then seek shelter within the walls of the maiden’s father’s house. The father learns of their crime and kills them. A spring supernaturally gushes from the ground where the girl’s body had lain.” That this kind of short, brutal synopsis is even possible sets The Virgin Spring apart from many of Bergman’s other films; it is unmistakably “about” something. Yet, because it is a Bergman film, it is about something much more.