In which we bring in the New Year with some old friends.
One of the earliest horror films, I’ve long been drawn to The Phantom Carriage thanks to its poster art. The spooky silhouette of a horse-drawn carriage against gaslit streets evokes a sense of the Universal horror films that would follow a decade later. Many of those 1930’s films are among my favourites, so I had high hopes going into this one.
First shown in 1921, The Phantom Carriage is a Swedish film directed by Victor Sjostrom. Incredibly advanced for its time, the film uses special effects to show the ghostly figures leaving their bodies and appearing to be translucent. Though not the first use of double exposure, it was the most advanced with the ghost characters interacting with the living.
Sjostrom also experiments with flashbacks in one of cinema’s earliest examples of the technique. The narrative jumps back and forth throughout as we follow the life of David Holm as he rejects chance after chance for redemption.
Holm’s tale is framed by a dying Salvation Army nurse, Edit who holds an unwavering faith that he will turn his life around. We’re then introduced to Holm as he falls foul of the curse that the last sinner to die in a year must drive Death’s carriage and collect souls for the next 12 months. The retiring driver, an old friend of Holm’s, forces Holm to relive the most sinful moments of his life, as he hurts his wife, children and Edit.
We learn the horrors of Holm’s decisions, as he abandons his brother to prison, corrupts those around him to drink and willingly spreads his consumption. Rejecting any help, he tortures anyone who gets close to him and lives only for himself.
It’s a convincing tale, perfectly brought to life through actor/writer/director Sjostrom’s portrayal of David Holm. He’s a natural star in all stages of Holm’s life, from his decline, through mini redemptions to his downfall on New Year’s Eve. He seems to age in body and spirit as the film goes on, all the more impressive as he’s often seen half exposed as a ghost.
In the almost 100 years since its release, The Phantom Carriage has inspired and influenced many directors. Ingman Bergman was a fan, claiming to watch it every year, and heavily referencing the design of Death in The Seventh Seal. Kubrick almost directly copies one scene in The Shining where Holm uses an axe to break down a door with his wife and children on the other side.
Released at a time when horror cinema, and cinema in general, was developing The Phantom Carriage, along with movies like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, helped set the template for decades to come.
As Patrick Brown notes in his essay for The Cinessential, the film “remind[s] us of the extent to which serious questions around death were on the mind of Europe and its filmmakers in the wake of WWI.”
It’s no coincidence that many of the early greats are part of the horror cycle, with these pioneering features leading to the monster-heavy pictures the followed. Whether you’re interested in the history of the genre or not, The Phantom Carriage is a horror film the manages being chilling, pioneering and enthralling all at once.