(The Phantom Carriage, Sweden - 1921)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Victor Sjostrom, Hilda Borgstrom, Tore Svennberg, Astrid Holm
Genre: Horror/Drama
Director: Victor Sjostrom
Screenplay: Victor Sjostrom from Selma Lagerlof's novel
Cinematography: Julius Jaenzon
Composer: -

“Lord, please let my soul come to maturity before it is reaped” – New Year’s Prayer

Though most memorable for a series of startling double exposure effects including the ghostly silhouette of Death’s rickety carriage driving through the streets and gliding over the sea, the clock face looming in the night sky as if it were an ominous moon, and the main character’s soul rising from his corpse but not before his spirit pauses on his knees as if to beg for redemption, the startling aspect of The Phantom Carriage is the acting. Most people are familiar with Victor Sjostrom’s wonderful performance in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, but while he was a revelation for many, he was within the acting style that had been seen in the 1950’s.

I was floored by how far ahead of their time the performances in The Phantom Carriage were. Normally, dramatic performances in silent movies are tolerated by more modern audiences because the visual style is so interesting and effective. While The Phantom Carriage would be good enough in that regard to achieve cult status even with the usual hammy gesticulations, the fact that it’s never marred by the usual excessive gesturing elevates it to the level of classic.

The acting style is very restrained with a lot less mugging than current Hollywood, much less that of the 1920’s. Rather than trying to mime everything, Sjostrom, who sets the tone playing the lead, simply has the performers be as they are. In essence, he has cinematographer Julius Jaenzon film a talkie (though obviously such a thing didn’t exist at that time), refusing to make any concessions to our inability to hear the characters dialogue (though of course putting the most important lines in intertitles). Despite the underplaying, everything is, more or less, as easily understandable as the traditional over the top silent acting, though far more naturalistic due to the lack of histrionics.

The acting style isn’t merely a positive by virtue of not being a negative, it allows The Phantom Carriage to work on multiple levels. Though billed as a horror film, this early supernatural tale is perhaps not the sort of movie modern audiences would associate with horror, as it doesn’t rely on violence or cheap shocks. The Phantom Carriage could be categorized as a dark fantasy or even a social drama, though I’ve never been that interested in genre because anything really good will transcend such limitations. What’s more important to note is Sjostrom does such a wonderful job of balancing the dramatic elements with the fantastic ones, allowing the movie to be alternately, if not simultaneously, serious and eerie rather than boxing it into having to try too hard to consistently succeed at one or the other.

The legend that the last person to die on New Year's Eve must drive the chariot of death for the next year provides a nice backdrop for a Dickensonian investigation of sin, betrayal, guilt, death, forgiveness, redemption, and atonement. Though more somber and downbeat than Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, both Dickens’ famous tale and the Selma Lagerlof novel Sjostrom adapts focus on the one-night, holiday inspired redemption of a heinous individual. The Phantom Carriage certainly utilizes a more complex narrative structure than your ordinary Dickens rendering, as rather than simply alternating between present and past or future, the retelling of the main character’s life is achieved through a less linear narrative of flashbacks within flashbacks.

The Phanton Carriage is an unnerving atmospheric film to be certain, but despite a scene where David breaks the door his wife locked down with an axe, an obvious inspiration to the “Here’s Johnny” scene in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Sjostrom’s horror is more of the Cyclops and Scrooge variety. The dread of being forced to confront your own mortality, much less relive all your sins and misdeeds is palpable. Add in the terror of being trapped for a year collecting the souls of the newly deceased for Death as the scary commuppance, and you have your basic, be good, or else!

The David Hale character is one of my favorites from early cinema because he is so shockingly vile and wretched, yet we are never really asked to hate or even feel sorry for him. David was a good upstanding individual and family man before his friend Georges (Tore Svennberg) converted him to the bottle, resulting in him winding up in the clink, and, far worse, converting his brother into such a reckless drunk he winds up murdering a man. Though a conventional narrative would blame all societies ill’s on the bottle, Sjostrom, while showing all the harm drinking can cause, is subtly far more sophisticated than that. Rather than the traditional cause and effect, he asserts a never ceasing action/reaction relationship where societies’ ills lead people to the bottle, and, in turn, the bottle leads people to more ills, so in the end, they are both consequences of each other.

The shock of the revelation about his brother’s grim future leads to the key hokey plot contrivance where David vows to turn over a new leaf upon being released from prison only to have his wife (Hilda Borgstrom) slink away like a thief in the night just before he’s set to return from the clink (a theme recalled from Sjostrom’s 1917 A Man There Was). Even David says he has no problem with the physical act of his wife leaving him - she’s justified based on his actions - he’d just prefer she had the guts to tell him they were through instead of breaking his heart on what could have been his first happy day in quite a while.

Forsaking almost all hope of an acceptable existence, David succumbs to a wretched life of humiliation, degradation, violence, disease, and despair. It’s suicide for those who won’t let themselves off the hook with an instantaneous death. Only the memory of David’s wife and kids keeps him going, but sometimes it’s hard to tell if he lives for the chance to regain her or torture her as she’s tormented him. His wife’s reaction to David’s misdeeds leaves David a block of ice, consumed by feelings of hatred and revenge which are so unquenchable he’s “happy” to pass his tuberculosis on to anyone, even his children.

Even though David spends the rest of his days lashing out in the most petty and vindictive ways, he isn’t a character one can simply hate. He’s sinister, but he’s not so much a villain as simply pathetic. From the first, Sister Edit (Astrid Holm) believes David is good and goes way out of her way to help him, only to be rewarded for her enthusiastic kindness with heartless cruelty. She fixes his tattered coat while he’s sleeping the booze off, only to have him call her in and, instead of thanking her, rip off every new button and tear off every patch right before her eyes! Though this scene is classic, it becomes puzzling when David continues to show Edit that sort of kindness, yet she claims to be in love with him.

Though technically an excellent film, this is one of the best examples in early cinema of the bag of tricks really bringing forth the theme of the film. The chariot Death’s driver rides is a translucent superimposition, which allows it to traverse both land and sea (those who drown won’t be spared!), but more importantly, the iris effect elucidates the fact that the world of the living and the world of the dead are interconnected. Conventional effects would suggest that they are two separate worlds, but here the double exposure makes it impossible to see them as anything but overlapping. We don’t pass from one world to the next, but rather we are split into our tangible and intangible parts, so the body may be seen by the living while the soul may be seen by the dead. Sjostrom’s take is that things need not be this way, but rather unity is attainable through purgation.

Ingmar Bergman was such a fan of The Phantom Carriage he claimed to view it at least once per year. It inspired some of his best work and most famous work, from playing Chess with Death in The Seventh Seal to the casting of Sjostrom as alienated old man forced to confront his meaningless of his existence as he’s about to pass to the next world in his tribute to The Phantom Carriage, Wild Strawberries.


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