What you hardly read about Bergman is that he is often scary. If you are looking for a precursor to David Lynch's creepiness and surrealism, turn to the opening nightmare sequence of "Wild Strawberries"; or to the hanging woodsman in "Summer’s Children" for a genuine ghost story chill; or death walking the lounge in "Fanny and Alexander"; or the all-round eeriness of "Hour of the Wolf", amongst others. And this is before we have even encountered his essays in psychological breakdown. For someone who isn’t known as a horror writer, Bergman was very assured and casual with the genre’s motifs. "Persona", for example, not only has psychological breakdown and seemingly a personality-transference between an actress and her nurse, but also plays with a wealth of vampire imagery. Or, perhaps, we are dealing in split personality, which we must puzzle out and which is another horror staple. Bergman happily has his characters and dramas interacting with seemingly supernatural elements that may or may not be genuine. I have always loved this because you never know when he is going to spring these moments upon you, and when you are not watching as a horror audience, your guard is often down and the effect is often genuinely surprising and chilling.
"Persona" is a famously unsolvable mystery, and if the opening montage of images are clues, they don’t really help with answers: film stock reeling and burning up; an erect penis (originally censored, naturally); bodies in a morgue; a boy asleep like a corpse in a white empty room. He wakes… is he the actress’ son, dreaming of her, or is she dreaming of him? Or is he a manifestation of the nurse’s aborted child? We can wonder this later or after, when we know some stories concerning our main characters: an actress who refuses to speak or function, apparently in an artistic and existential collapse; and the nurse assigned to oversee her recuperation in a beach house. But it is the nurse who uses the actress’s silence for experiments in unburdening herself in a quintessential Bergman confession of an adulterous dalliance. When the nurse feels her confidence has been condescended and betrayed, a confusion of the women’s characters threatens meltdown. What is real and what is fantastic is not clear: does the actress’s husband really turn up to the beach house and mistake the nurse for his wife? Some kind of emotional vampirism is occurring here, and the actress pours out of fog to seduce her victim. There is also some sucking of blood, completely Nosferatu. Cinematic conventions being played with, where the screen burns up as if the projector is on fire from the drama, but somehow this is more akin to an emotional variation of the formal shock moment from a horror film (rather than, say, the kind of conceited self-reflexive trick of the fast-forward moment of Haneke’s "Funny Games").
It is open to readings of criticism of psychotherapy, and it also acts nicely as a tale of the unreal affinity and emotional demands audiences make of artists: the nurse (Bibi Andersson) may just as well be telling her secrets to a poster of Liv Ullman. But for all this stark, pretty imagery and genre bending, Bergman knows that the real horrors can be existential states of despair and fear, that non-communication, disloyalty and superciliousness can force wide open cracks in vulnerable people. Fascinating, frustrating and compelling, very few can force such ideas to work and transcend. Bergman had a vast output and range, and even now he never fails to surprise and, frequently, to chill.