The Phantom Carriage

The Phantom Carriage ★★★★½

Victor Sjöström made films with social messages, filled with compassion for those in dire circumstances. The Phantom Carriage, in which he also stars as the lead character, is another work by Sjöström that has a strong social conscience, even though it's not one of his usual dramas but instead a horror and fantasy film. It is sternly moralistic and also of its time, with a strong anti-drinking, pro-family stance. One fantastic sequence sees the value of family fade into drunken mirth. Sjöström's sympathies lie with many characters, but the real victims in The Phantom Carriage are women seeking solace from the pain around them, from masculine misdeeds. The Phantom Carriage is moving and despairing at times, but as with most Sjöström pictures, it shows us the value of granting someone help and forgiveness.

For the silent era, The Phantom Carriage is a surprisingly complex and character-driven work. It is one of film's earliest masterpieces, and contains fluid editing and a fantastic atmosphere. It is an ominous movie, like a slowly beating drum. It is spooky and traditionally gothic in some ways, but always tinged with caring realism. It has fantastic effects for the time, with faded objects and men interacting with the opaque world. It is a tale told in living pictures, with patches of images surrounded by darkness. The blue hue of the outside night provides many memorable visuals. In fact, there's a lot of visual storytelling with the expression on characters' faces telling us so much, showing us shock, grief, and twisted internal conflicts. Beyond the stunning direction is the narrative, full of stories within stories not constrained by chronology. It is a film of strands that slowly come together for maximum effect. It has plenty of storytelling flaws, but The Phantom Carriage is a real technical triumph for its era.

Death is a key part of The Phantom Carriage, with its presence in the story bringing full circle the ideas of change. Death is not the end for the lead character, but the beginning that must be reached before he can start to truly live. On some level, the film questions the purpose of mortality and whether it exists to make us realise our wrongs. Having to witness death and suffering humbles us, as does the horror of watching and revisiting past mistakes. The myths around death comes to life in The Phantom Carriage, and the entire film is soaked in dreariness, it's a montage of death: a ghostly carriage travelling over crashing waves. Christianity plays a key role and the characters turn to God and Jesus to aid them, but death is a tool created by those above us. The Phantom Carriage is depressing and distressing at times, being creaky and old (the visuals of dying), but it shows us how death can be absolved of its brutality if we allow our lives to be worthwhile beforehand. It might not be truthful, but there's some comfort in seeing death lead characters to a better way of living.

Spoilers in the next paragraph.

Change is really what The Phantom Carriage is about. Death is one change, but Sjöström wants to show a social change that leads to happiness. We see a brief montage of happiness at one point, of a time that didn't last. Yet what The Phantom Carriage really digs into is the redemption of a bad man. What makes The Phantom Carriage so much darker than most silent movies is that it tackles genuine evil that exists, creating some very upsetting moments between the lead and his wife. The scourge of disease is also shown, and we see the disease of drunkenness as one drunkard seems to inevitably create other drunkards. There's an implication that wickedness is a pretence to cope with other problems, and that only makes the world sadder, as pain seems to spread more pain. There is hope however and some characters have a mysterious love that appears to others as if it came from nowhere. Love can be found, but it's often hidden in the soul and not shown. Bringing out this love leads to change. There's many reoccurrences of New Years in The Phantom Carriage, just to emphasise the power of this transition, the moment someone can choose to change from wrong to right. The ending, told through focused circles, is moving and tearful. Death finally gets the prayer he wants, and we see the tears of a reformed, renewed man. The Phantom Carriage is about learning to accept this change and working to improve the lives of ourselves and those around us. Sjöström had something to show us, and succeeded in doing so.

The Phantom Carriage is one of the greatest silent films, a successful moral work blended with fantastic filmmaking. There's so many slow, powerful, mood-building moments and it all comes together to produce an eerie and distinctive tale. There's something powerful in its complex telling of a simple message, and it really holds up, even to this day.

Side-note 1: The Phantom Carriage contains the second best scene of an angry man using an axe to get through a locked door so he get at his wife and child/children. The best is in The Shining.

Side-note 2: The Phantom Carriage would make a great double feature with Wild Strawberries, as in both we get to see Victor Sjöström go through a life-changing experience via dreams and flashbacks, and yet their styles are very different.

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