The Phantom Carriage

The Phantom Carriage ★★★★½

Happy 2021 everyone! What better way to start the year than watching a film that turned 100 years old today, takes place on New Year’s Eve and features a gloomy theme of regret but is also about improving yourself going forward.

Sjöström’s classic is a harrowing horror film that does have ghostly elements in the form of the death carriage but it's not exactly spiritual or fantastical horror that would frighten you to the core. Apart from a couple of horror aspects The Phantom Carriage leans more into secular and domestic terror as it deals with a person’s own demise and the dooming life choices they make. With his direction Sjöström, who also plays the lead character David with great conviction, draws a portrait of a man whose actions have a somewhat understandable reason but his behavior gets more and more unsympathetic and terrible throughout the movie. It’s only after his death that he learns his ways which in itself is a powerful message of time and unappreciation of life. Although David's behavior is appalling for most of the movie Sjöström doesn’t heartlessly shove his main character under the bus and gives him redeeming qualities. With his own performance and David’s past Sjöström builds a strong case for both David’s cynicism and the forgiving ending. It’s this ability to explore cause and effect in a humane way as well as tread the thin line of right and wrong through a rather horrific person that gives the film it’s staying power.

One of the many tools used to enhance the effectiveness of Phantom Carriage is David’s disease which works as a clear symbol for his behavior that spreads literal illness to other people and destroys even the most noble ones. Which relates to the only thing I would’ve liked to have more depth - the exploration of Edit, the Salvation Army woman. She was quite a typical image of all the good and beautiful in the world but taken to a point where I started to lose my interest in the simplicity of her character. She is a key part in the story but the melodrama surrounding her got a bit tiring.

Told in beautiful post death flashbacks with a dramatic score the movie often takes a chilling and exhilarating approach. The first appearance of the carriage and the hooded driver is phenomenal and the axe scene gave me chills. The lasting impact of those scenes is elevated by traditional drama that fleshes out most characters. All around Phantom Carriage’s storytelling is impeccable, of which a lot of credit goes to Sjöström and Jaenzon’s framing and the impressive special effects.

There were strong scenes at the end but the one moment that struck me was David and Georges’ first meeting after David’s death. I was eating while watching but that moment stopped me in my tracks in a way which no other movie from this time period has done. It gave me an idea that since it is the beginning of the year it’s a good time to try a new thing so I think I’ll start to include one impactful moment from each film to the end of my reviews (if there is one). Strong start to the year!

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