Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage, made in 1921, is considered to be one of the masterpieces of Swedish silent cinema. Sjöström is still regarded as a major figure in the history of the Swedish film industry. As a result of the international success of The Phantom Carriage the director was lured to Hollywood where he made a number of highly acclaimed movies.

Of his silent movies made in Sweden only three survive.

Sjöström wrote, directed and starred in The Phantom Carriage. It was based on a novel by Selma Lagerlöf.

The action of the film occurs on successive New Year’s Eves, the basis of the plot being a supposed legend that the last person to die during the course of the year is condemned to drive Death’s carriage for a year. Most of the movie comprises flashbacks telling of the lives, and most importantly the sins, of two men who die on successive New Year’s Eves and who thus become in turn the driver of Death’s cart.

The film begins with a young female Salvation Army officer, Edit (Astrid Holm) dying of consumption. Before she dies she asks to see a man named David Holm. In fact David Holm (played by Sjöström himself) will die on the stroke of midnight but his story is not yet over. He will be forced to relive his wretched life and to confront his sins, which are many.

Holm was a drunkard whose impossible behaviour finally impelled his wife to run away from him, taking their two children. This turns Holm very bitter indeed and he grows to hate the world and everyone in it. As a further complication (which will play a vital role in the story) Holm himself has tuberculosis.

Sister Edit goes to great lengths to try to reform Holm. Her motives are complex since she has (very unwisely) fallen in love with him. Her reform efforts are conspicuously unsuccessful. David dies unreformed and unrepentant but he has a considerable amount of suffering to endure before this night is over.

Those who have problems with the acting styles of silent movies will have few causes for complaint here. Both Sjöström and Astrid Holm (and indeed all the actors) give very naturalistic performances. Sjöström would go on to earn great acclaim as an actor and his performance is certainly powerful.

While modern audiences will be pleasantly surprised by the acting they are likely to have major problems with other aspects of the movie. It is more a moral tale than a horror movie (although of course a movie can be both). The moral tale is the centrepiece though. The movie may also appear, to audiences accustomed to the cynicism and the relentless ironies of modern movies, to be very sentimental. And indeed it is sentimental, although not entirely in a bad way.

The big problem is the pacing which is leisurely to say the least.

On the other hand it’s certainly a visually impressive film. The special effects used had to be done in-camera in 1921 and while they’re mostly just superimpositions done by double exposures they’re done with exceptional skill and they work extremely well. The scenes involving the phantom carriage itself are masterpieces of gothic imagery. Sjöström and his cinematographer Julius Jaenzon created a movie that not only looks incredibly creepy and ominous but more importantly the visuals serve the story rather than being there just for effect.

Tartan Video’s British DVD release looks pretty good considering the age of the movie. Fortunately the tinting has been preserved, tinting being one of the standard techniques of silent cinema and one that is very skillfully utilised in this film.

The score is provided by an outfit calling themselves KTL. I endured five minutes of it before turning the volume down to zero. Like most of the modern scores provided for DVD releases of silent movies it distracts the viewer rather than enhancing the movie.

The Phantom Carriage’s visual brilliance makes it one of the crucial movies in the evolution of the gothic horror movie, and although Sjöström was not really intending to make a horror movie as such it does work as a horror movie. Recommended, but if you’re not familiar with the techniques and conventions of silent movies you might be safer to rent this one first.

1 comment:

Kho said...

I loved this film and it is the first film that I've seen by Sjostrom(Seastrom). I have the Criterion edition and the print was gorgeous. I didn't have a problem with the pacing at all. I also love moral fables. That's what the Twilight Zone was all about.I've just ordered 3 other films from Sjostrom's Swedish silent period. Kino distributes them here in the US. I would very highly recommend the Phantom Carriage.