The Phantom Carriage

The Phantom Carriage ★★★½

Film #5 of 31 in my Hoop-Tober 2016 challenge

Keeping in mind that this film from Sweden's Victor Sjöström was made in 1921 with hand-cranked cameras, it features some of the most incredible special effects as well as innovative flashbacks with flashbacks. It also has a first rate story, based upon the novel entitled "Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness!" (1912) by Swedish Nobel Prize laureate Selma Lagerlöf.

As the film opens, it is New Year's Eve and we see on her death bed a Salvation Army worker called Sister Edit (Astrid Holm). She is attended by her mother (Concordia Selander), and when Edit calls out for a man named David Holm (Victor Sjöström), her colleague Gustafsson (Tor Weijden) is sent off to find him.

Meanwhile, David is in the local graveyard with two companions, getting drunk and telling tales. David speaks of his old buddy Georges (Tore Svennberg), a jovial fellow who always became morose on New Year's Eve. The reason, David explains, is that Georges believed in a ghostly carriage, owned by Death and used to collect the souls of the departed. According to legend, the carriage's driver is the last person to die each year and, oddly enough, Georges passed away just before midnight on New Year's Eve the previous year.

When Gustafsson finds David, the drunkard refuses to go with him. A fight ensues and David is hit on the head with a bottle, just before the clock strikes twelve. As the victim's soul seems to emerge from his body, the Phantom Carriage pulls up driven by Georges himself. Initially, Georges is sympathetic. He blames himself for leading David down the path of alcoholism and sin, away from his wife, children and brother.

However, through flashbacks we see how David had opportunities to clean up his act and instead let hatred fill his heart. One example is how Sister Edit provided him with a bed and mended his filthy jacket, but he disrespected her by promising to return and never did. It seems David's spirit must now be the cart driver and reaper of souls for a year, starting with a visit to Edit, who lays dying, and then to his wife on the verge of murder-suicide.

Was a soul ever in such a predicament? Could prayer help? Although Georges admits he has no power over the living, Sjöström certainly did, so expect a satisfying ending despite the apparent impossibility. Given the occultism and mysticism inherent in the story, it's a wonder the censors left the basic film intact for viewing, and it's a fine thing they did. What a lovely example of early horror for audiences of today.

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