The Phantom Carriage (1921)

“There is an old, old carriage… It is no ordinary driver who holds the reigns, for he’s in the service of a strict master named Death.”

‘The Phantom Carriage’, directed by Victor Sjöström in 1921, is a Swedish silent horror movie starring the director as David Holm, a drunkard who when knocked unconscious on New Year’s Eve, is taken by an emissary of Death and shown his past. Holm is lead on his journey by a man who was the last to die the previous year and is forced to perform duties for the Grim Reaper. Along the way we learn of Holm’s troubled home life, his turning to alcohol and, finally, his redemption. It’s a stylish and surprisingly sophisticated film with flashbacks, special effects and an complex, involved plot based on Selma Lagerlöf’s ‘Körkarlen’ but also reminiscent of ‘A Christmas Carol’ in its structure. What is most interesting about this movie, however, is its legacy. Not only did Sjöström’s depiction of Death translate into the famous figure in Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal’ (the director later appeared in the main role in Bergman’s ‘Wild Strawberries‘, it is possible to see traces of ‘The Phantom Carriage’ in later American movies. Stanley Kubrick in ‘The Shining’ picked up a number of plot beats and images, most notably that of a man axing his way through a door with his wife and children cowering the other side. There are strong hints of David Lynch present as well, from the strange, trippy effects to the weird angles and blocking. On the DVD I watched, all this is played over an ambient, creepy soundtrack by KTL, a musical collaboration of Peter Rehberg and Stephen O’Malle. This really adds to the feeling of uneasiness when watching the film and the sound of knocking, wheezing and moaning threads through the scenes.

Would I recommend it? Yes – for a long silent film it rocks along and it’s fascinating to see where so many images from classic horror cinema came from. Watch in a double bill with either ‘The Seventh Seal’ or ‘The Shining’.

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