The Phantom Carriage

The Phantom Carriage ★★★★½

What better way to begin the new year than by watching a film set on New Year’s Eve and released exactly 100 years ago? I decided to travel back in time for my first watch of 2021, and although The Phantom Carriage is classified as horror, I—even as an avid avoider of horror—was pleasantly surprised by its narrative, score and performances. 

Tantalizing, spellbinding, imaginative and ahead of its time, The Phantom Carriage is an enticing ride opening with a simple setting: A dying woman wishes to speak to David Holm, a man who is an unknown to us when his name is first mentioned, but who becomes the central figure over the course of the film. As we follow his journey, the narrative masterfully explores his character and life, eventually leading back to his unforeseen connection with the woman in the opening scene.

While the story itself is both intriguing and stirring, it’s the narrative structure that turns this film not only into an achievement ahead of its time, but also into the compelling feat that it is. By its use of a nonlinear structure and flashbacks, The Phantom Carriage is able to examine Holm’s life from all angles, making his motives and the layered narratives slowly fall into place as the film goes on. At the end of its 107-minute runtime, the protagonist’s personality feels familiar, both through his thoroughly developed character and a structure that invites us to get lost in its stories within stories within stories, resurfacing with a different perspective each time, and, in the end, resurfacing to reality.

Silent films are heavily reliant on soundtracks, blocking, and performances in order to convey emotion, tone and tension. With the narrative being a carefully crafted and layered achievement, it’s no surprise that The Phantom Carriage exceeds at utilizing every tool available to develop its atmosphere to the fullest: closeups become daunting, iris shots become isolating, and wide shots become eerie. The special effects used in this film add to the sinister tone, subsequently creating illusions that make it hard to believe that this is a picture made in the silent era.

While Chaplin’s soundtracks are, for me, the masterpieces of silent films, the score used in this film comes close to Chaplin’s excellence. Be it despair, joy or solitude, the melodies by Eric Westberg emphasize almost every emotion and lace it with the needed mysterious, menacing or even moving tone. Through interweaving unsettling notes played by violins with disconcerting chords, Westberg creates a soundscape determined to rattle the audience as much as the main character is rattled and shaken. Over the course of the film, the score stays a relentless tour de force, not only creating tension and setting an eerie atmosphere, but also never once failing to highlight every nuance and detail of each scene: inquiring semiquavers and curious melodies morph into moving phrases and occasionally even joyful themes, giving us small moments to breathe, recurring themes transform from minor scales to major scales, reflecting the somewhat Russian doll structure of the film, and—quite literally—always finding the right tone.

Overall, The Phantom Carriage is probably the textbook definition of a movie ahead of its time. Despite its release in the silent era 100 years ago, this film doesn’t once feel like it’s outdated—instead, with its inventive structure, impeccable direction and masterful score, it’s a brilliant lesson on what movies are capable of.

Mild spoiler
The personification of death as the stern-faced, unsettling force reminded me a lot of The Seventh Seal, and as a whole, the underlying contemplative nature and slow exploration of character made me think of Ingmar Bergman’s work, which really makes me wanna rewatch The Seventh Seal! I wasn’t in the right mindset when I first watched it, so hoping I will be tomorrow!

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