The Phantom Carriage

The Phantom Carriage ★★★★½

Special features on the Criterion inform me that Ingmar Bergman watched Victor Sjöström The Phantom Carriage at least once a year. It's an influence which can't be overstated: profoundly impactful throughout his teenage years and seemingly prescient during his sterling filmography. Whether these features tend to offer a vital importance is a tad disputable, but for film fans it's worth a look in order to understand that connection. There's also the fact that Sjöström was considered a pioneering Swedish director before Bergman's arrival with his one two-punch of Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal. This alone is pure proof that he remained one of the most accomplished silent film-makers (if surpassed, by now) yet significant on generations who came after him.

While Bergman may be the most notable of successors, there's plenty of influence in The Phantom Carriage which can be seen in the work of multiple directors. One scene took me aback as an enraged father beats down a door with an axe to get to his wife and children. Mirroring The Shining, anyone? It's so evident from the positioning of camera angles to the ferocious indentations of that wielding weapon. Even the cross-cutting between these two rooms mirrored what Kubrick set out to do in almost scarily familiar shot-by-shot play. Other examples include a direct precursor to Capra's perennial holiday classic It's a Wonderful Life (or pretty much anything Charles Dickensian) to even German Expressionist cinema where haunting imagery can be pinpointed in Dreyer's supernatural thriller Vampyr.

Onto the film, Sjöström himself plays an inebriated lout named David Holm who has sworn off good behavior completely. He vows to track down his wife after she leaves him for drunken behavior after being sent off to jail. It's not exactly an excuse for merry drunkenness, but events have led him to be the unstable man he has become. Along the way he meets Sister Edit, a Salvation Army worker who takes him in one cold New Year's Eve and shows him kindness. But he throws it back in her face with utter wickedness. Somehow, with the goodness in her heart, Sister Edit says a prayer for him and asks God to grant the man a fine new year. She only wishes one thing: his return one year later to let her know if her prayer was answered. Her future entreaties for his redemption are met with more cynical and apathetic cruelty. There's only so much which can stem from mending a torn coat during one fateful night.

Sister Edit contracts consumption and falls deathly ill. While David Holm sits in a graveyard one year later relating ghost stories to his fellow revelers, he remembers a jovial friend named George who had died one year ago that very night. According to legend, the last person who dies on New Year's Eve is doomed to drive Death's carriage for the next year. But before the night is out, David finds himself in a fight and passes away just before the stroke of midnight. Just as the legend says, Death's carriage comes for him and the driver is none other than his old friend who had died the year before. In a Dickensian twist, before he hands David the reigns, the carriage driver takes him on a tour of his life. Regretful vibes be had and they hit hard. Through a series of flashbacks, David's story unfolds, and he sees how his actions have destroyed not only Sister Edit's life but the lives of his wife and children as well. It's narratively brilliant.

First and foremost onto the actual quality of this film; many of Sjöström groundbreaking special effects were achieved in-camera and seem surprisingly impressive even by today's standards. The transparent carriage and soul levitations are convincingly realized using double exposure; whilst appearing revolutionary for its time. Trick films were of course quite popular in the 20's, but this one utilizes them as an intrusion towards our world. Not much is more frightening than the image of Death and his scythe. There's also the layering of non-linear flashbacks within flashbacks (even excelling The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari's techniques) which form intriguing strands between Holm, his wife, the drunkards and Sister Edit. From the woeful tragedy that has become of Holm's alcoholism to the notion of tormenting your loved ones. Ironically, it's not even about death and moreso on tragic morality plays.

Lastly, there's two formats in which The Phantom Carriage can be chosen via its musical scores. You've got a more classical score by Matti Bye (which enhances the film's eerie beauty) or a modern score by experimental group KTL which focuses more on the film's supernatural dissonance. Having only watched the film today and skimming through moments of Bye's chords, there's a kind of horror tinged experimentalism that provides this film with a wholly unique experience. Some of the twangy, ethereal vibes reminded me of Voices of Light's incorporation for The Passion of Joan of Arc. That should be cathartic enough for you. Add a stunningly preserved 35mm copy in HD visual richness and no complaints be had. Evidently, no matter which score one chooses, no matter which format one watches, The Phantom Carriage is an undated masterpiece. It's artful, complex, fatalistic and beautiful.

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