The Phantom Carriage

The Phantom Carriage ★★★★

I have to confess to feeling slightly let down by The Phantom Carriage, but that doesn't prevent it from being one of the most impressive silent films I've ever seen.

The main character, David Holm, has to be one of the cruellest in cinema history. A drunkard, he's something of a walking curse, spreading doom metaphorically (by inflicting pain and suffering on those around him) and literally (by infecting people with his consumptive cough). On New Year's Eve, however, his time comes, and the Phantom Carriage, which does the rounds collecting the souls of the dead, arrives and the coachman, an acquaintance of David who died the previous New Year's Eve, is to hand his duties over to him, but not before David has been made to visit Sister Edit, the Salvation Army worker who tried in vain to mend his relationship with his wife.

Director Victor Sjöström employs a flashback structure, distinguishing past from present via the use of different colour filters. But the biggest trick he has up his sleeve is in the way he films the carriage - he half-superimposes it onto the background, making it translucent and therefore truly ghostly. There are some other moments of visual brilliance, such as when, during the axe scene (famously an inspiration for The Shining's "Here's Johnny!"), Sjöström shrouds the terrified wife in darkness, heightening a sense of pity on our part. His lead performance as Holm also makes for a compelling time whenever he's on screen. However, working against all this for me is the fact that, although the film announces itself as a spooky horror story in its early moments, it quickly becomes a preachy morality play, dispensing with the creepy atmosphere.

Its narrative trajectory may feel like a let-down, but as I said at the start, that doesn't take away from how it makes you feel most of the time, or from what it actually achieves in terms of the technical aspects of film, especially given how old it is.

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