Brian Formo’s review published on Letterboxd:
The Ghosts of New Year's Past: A Swedish Carol
Watched for Film School Dropouts Week 3
Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries followed by The Seventh Seal was my teenaged introduction to foreign film. As The Phantom Carriage director/star went on to face a lifetime tribunal as the star of Bergman's nightmare reveries in Strawberries and Bergman also had Max von Sydow play a game of chess with Death in Seventh Seal, I was definitely prepared to look for all the ways in which Victor Sjöström's film influenced the great Swedish director of guilt, religious shame, and truthful dreams. And the Bergman influence is all over The Phantom Carriage in its opening at death's bed, in its physical manifestation of death, in its characters who say the word "happiness" as though it's a foreign concept that they've never once experienced a day in their lives, and in the structure of flashbacks to memories where guilt festers. But what surprised me was also what would seem like a definite influence on Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining, not only in the axe scene, where the drunk father attempts to hack the door down to get to his suffering wife and children, and not only in the portrayal of alcoholism, but also in the attention to New Year's as a repetitive cycle of bad decisions that's tied to alcohol and celebration.
Now, The Phantom Carriage is so expertly made that it deserves to be discussed on its own merits and not just the mega-auteur mentions of Bergman and Kubrick. Sjöström cloaks this movie in immense dread and never punctures the sheet for any hopeful light. And the score, from the title card thwack of a horse-drawn death buggy, through the drone overtones, is perfect. If I have a critique its mainly in the Salvation Army's Edit's declaration of love for David Holm which rings immensely false and feels like its just a requirement to have a love story/mention somewhere in every early narrative. That and the sentencing of David for his brother's murder because he got drunk with him doesn't carry much weight. But the dread, the drunk scenes, the terrifying axe scene, and the great special effects make this a powerful film that would understandably be referenced by some of our best living filmmakers in the future. And despite a few story qualms The Phantom Carriage more than earns its own recommendation as its own narrative, regardless of future influence. Even though it ultimately builds to be the It's a Wonderful Life of Swedish bleakness.