Wednesday 26 February 2014

War of the Trojans (1962)

War of the Trojans (AKA La leggenda di Enea, AKA The Avenger) is a 1962 peplum starring Steve Reeves, most famous for playing Hercules in the movie that triggered the peplum craze. But War of the Trojans is anything but a typical peplum. It’s an attempt at a serious historical epic. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of taste but to have any chance of appreciating this movie you have to be prepared to accept it serious intentions.

This movie’s other problem is that it assumes you know a certain amount about Greco-Roman mythology. It was actually a sequel to an earlier Steve Reeves movie, The Trojan Horse, so if you haven’t seen that movie and you don’t know your mythology you’re likely to be quite perplexed by War of the Trojans.

The hero of the movie (played by Reeves naturally) is Aeneas. Aeneas was a Trojan hero, a distant cousin of King Priam and a faithful lieutenant to the great Trojan hero Hector. Aeneas survived the fall of Troy and led a group of other Trojan survivors on a series of adventures in various lands before they finally settled in Italy, on the banks of a river called the Tiber. Their descendants would become much better known as the Romans. Aeneas is the hero of Virgil’s great epic poem the Aeneid. The movie pretty much assumes that you know all this.

The movie follows Virgil reasonably closely. The movie opens with the arrival of Aeneas and his followers, the remnants of the Trojans, in Latium. The king of Latium, Latinus (called Latino in the movie) welcomes Aeneas and grants him lands on the Tiber and the title of a Latin prince. This enrages Turnus (called Turno in the movie and played by Gianni Garko), the king of the Rutili. The enmity between Aeneas and Turno slowly builds, fueled by romantic complications involving King Latino’s daughter Lavinia (Carla Marlier). The machinations of Latino’s queen Amata, who happens to be Turno’s aunt, adds even more fuel to the fire.

Eventually war erupts. Aeneas needs allies and turns to the Etruscans for help, while Turno is supported by Camilla (Liana Orfei), the queen of the Volsci.

The build-up to the war is rather slow, mostly because the script is determined to establish the complex reasons for the war and for the various alliances that will decide it. When the action does arrive there is plenty of it.

The most impressive thing about this movie is that it doesn’t just put the Trojans, Rutilians, Latins and Volsci in cast-off Greek or Roman armour and costumes left over from other historical epics. Considerable pain have been taken to make the costumes distinctive and most importantly to give them a genuinely archaic look. They really do look like they come from a much earlier historical period compared to the armour and costumes you see in most historical epics. The events depicted in the movie are supposed to have occurred around the 12th century BC and the movie does a fine job of convincing us that we really are in the very distant past. The sets also look convincingly archaic.

The battle scenes are fairly well done and again they have the right flavour. This was the heroic age and battles would certainly have been rather chaotic affairs compared to the disciplined scientific warfare evolved by the Greek many centuries later.

All of these attempts at historical realism, or at least at giving a mythological story a feeling of historical realism, are all very well but what you want to know is whether it’s an entertaining movie or not. The answer to that is a bit tricky. It’s definitely not the kind of high camp fun that one usually associates with the peplum genre. One of the great attractions of this genre is the cheesiness, and this movie’s cheesiness factor is very close to zero. If you’re looking for outrageous cheesy fun you’re likely to be disappointed. If you’re prepared to accept the movie as an attempt at a serious historical epic and if you have an enthusiasm for mythology and ancient history then you’re likely to enjoy it quite a bit.

Steve Reeves plays it very straight. His Aeneas is a brave and skillful warrior and a wise leader but he’s no superman. It’s a restrained performance that suits the tone of the movie.   The acting in general is restrained, with Gianni Garko as Turno being the only one to indulge in anything resembling scenery-chewing. Queen Camilla of the Volsci looks like a prime candidate to be the kind of beautiful but evil queen that adds so much fun to so many movies of this type but the movie opts to stick to the mythology and resist the temptation to make her a femme fatale type, and Liana Orfei plays Camilla as a brave and honourable woman who happens to have picked the wrong ally.

Giorgio Venturini directed a mere handful of movies. He does a competent job but the movie really could have used a bit more dash.

Retromedia paired this movie with Giant of Marathon as their Steve Reeves Collection. There’s good news and bad news as far as the transfer for War of the Trojans is concerned. The good news is that it’s in the correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio and the transfer is 16x9 enhanced, and the movie seems to be relatively complete. The bad news is that it’s a fairly poor print. The colours are unstable and there’s a lot of print damage. But after years of having to make do with horrible pan-and-scan versions of most peplums it’s a luxury to at least have the correct aspect ratio.

War of the Trojans is a bit of an oddity and it’s not going to satisfy most peplum fans. It is slow-moving, but if you’re in the mood for something a bit different it’s worth giving it a chance.

Saturday 22 February 2014

The Brain from Planet Arous (1957)

The Brain from Planet Arous is schlocky 1950s American science fiction at its schlockiest. If that’s the sort of thing you like then this is the movie for you.

John Agar is the star, and you know what to expect when you see his name in the credits. No actor was more synonymous with cheesy sci-fi than John Agar. He plays nuclear physicist Steve March. Steve and his scientific colleague Dan Murphy (Robert Fuller) have been picking up unexpected bursts of radioactivity from the vicinity of Mystery Mountain. Yes, they live near a place called Mystery Mountain. Mystery Mountain is in the middle of the desert and we’re told that nobody ever goes there. But Steve and Dan have to discover where the radioactivity is coming from so they set off in their jeep to find out.

They find a cave that wasn’t there before. Since nobody ever goes near Mystery Mountain it seems a bit strange that they’d notice a cave that wasn’t there a year earlier, but they do notice it. In the cave they discover the source of the radioactivity - a brain from outer space! This disembodied brain takes over Steve’s body.

The brain’s name is Gor. He’s from the planet Arous, and he is not a friendly alien and he has not come to Earth to save us from the consequences of our scientific folly or any of that nonsense. Gor has come to conquer.

Steve’s fiancée Sally (Joyce Meadows) realises immediately that something is wrong with Steve. He’s become much too amorous for her liking. It soon becomes obvious that apart from power Gor wants something else that most aliens seem to want - he wants our women!

Sally and her dad set out for Mystery Mountain to find out what happened there to change Steve so dramatically. And they encounter a second alien brain. This one is named Vol. Vol explains that Gor is an escaped criminal and that he is insane and power-crazed. He must be stopped. Vol will help them to stop him. But in order to do this Vol needs to take over someone’s body. Being a disembodied brain has its advantages but to stop Gor he will need a body. So he takes over the body of George. Since George is a dog this seems a rather silly choice but Sally and her dad weren’t too keen on his original idea of taking over Sally’s body. After seeing Steve go all sex-crazed their coolness about this idea is kind of understandable.

Meanwhile Gor is pushing ahead with his plans to conquer the Earth and eventually become master of the universe (as well as pushing ahead with his plans to have his evil way with poor Sally). Only a woman’s love and an alien brain in a dog’s body can  stop him!

The secret to making a science fiction movie on a zero budget is to find a story that doesn’t require elaborate special effects, since it’s obviously the special effects that are going to let you down. That’s what this movie does for most of its running time. Unfortunately the climactic scene does require special effects that work, and what this movie offers is one of the cheesiest scenes in sci-fi movie history. If you had somehow managed to take the story seriously up to this point (which I admit is pretty unlikely) then that scene entirely destroys the movie.

On the other hand if you’ve been watching the movie all the way through as a delightful example of so-bad-it’s-good film-making then that scene will be the icing on the cake that makes this movie a bona fide camp classic.

John Agar is for once called upon to do some serious acting and his glorious inability to do so is another major attraction. As a megalomaniacal insane alien he pulls out all the stops and chews every piece of scenery he can lay his hands on and it just doesn’t work. But it doesn’t work in a good way, a way that adds considerably to the fun.

I don’t know the name of the dog who plays George but he easily walks off with the acting honours in this movie.

Director Nathan Juran was generally pretty good at making low-budget sci-fi movies that turn out to be rather entertaining but this time around he’s defeated by a budget that is just too meagre to make the idea work. He still gives it his best shot and he does at least keep things moving along. The one thing that is guaranteed to kill a low-budget movie is a low pace and Juran manages to avoid that hurdle. Juran is billed in the credits as Nathan Hertz because he was embarrassed by the movie but he still did his best.

What you’re really watching this movie for though is the cheesy special effects and they don’t disappoint. The floating brains are wonderfully goofy and that climactic scene I mentioned earlier is a total hoot.

Image Entertainment’s DVD release offers a quite acceptable transfer.

The trouble with most ultra-low budget bad movies of this type is that they’re bad but boring. The Brain from Planet Arous is bad but thoroughly entertaining. This movie is sheer unadulterated fun and is highly recommended.

Monday 17 February 2014

Münchhausen (1943)

Münchhausen was released by the great German studio UFA in 1943 to celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary. When you consider how many superb movies UFA had made it’s obvious that a movie was going to have to be very good indeed to serve as a worthy celebration of that anniversary. Fortunately Münchhausen lived up to their expectations. Despite being an unbelievably expensive production it was soon in profit. It was hailed as a masterpiece, which indeed it is.

The circumstances of the production have made it a potentially controversial film and until its restoration by the F. W. Murnau Foundation in 2004 it had been very rarely seen outside of Germany. The potential controversy was of course that the movie was made during the era of the National Socialist regime and under the auspices of Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry which at the time oversaw German film production. It was in fact one of Goebbels’ pet projects, to the extent that the movie was given a (literally) unlimited budget. Despite these circumstances this is in no way a Nazi propaganda movie and it really has no discernible political content or political agenda.

Münchhausen was based on a late 18th century fantasy adventure book that enjoyed enormous popularity in Germany. It has in fact very much the feel of a fairy tale, albeit a sophisticated fairy tale with as much appeal to adults as to children.

Erich Kästner was a popular writer whose works had been banned by the Nazis. In spite of this Goebbels (who personally liked Kästner’s books) was persuaded that Kästner was the only man capable of turning the tale into a successful screenplay and he was given the job. Josef von Báky, who would go on to have a successful postwar career, was assigned to direct. Konstantin Irmen-Tschet would be responsible for the special effects, a sound choice as he had been responsible for the effects in movies like Metropolis.

The movie chronicles the unlikely adventures of Baron Hieronymus Münchhausen. The movie opens in the present day, with the current Baron Hieronymus Münchhausen telling the story of his illustrious if over-imaginative ancestor. At least we assume at first that this man is a descendent of the famous baron although we will later learn that things are not quite what they seem in this framing story.

Münchhausen (Hans Albers), accompanied by his ingenious servant Christian Kuchenreutter (Hermann Speelmans), travels to the court of Catherine the Great of Russia. He receives a warm welcome, to say the least, and quickly becomes the empress’s lover. This affair will involve the baron in a bizarre duel conducted in complete darkness. Münchhausen moves on and becomes involved with the war against the Turks. His arrival at the court of the Sultan is accomplished by means of the most celebrated scene in the movie, with the baron riding a cannonball fired by a heavy artillery piece. The baron’s adventures at the Sultan’s court will, as usual, involve him in romantic entanglements.

In Venice he fights another bizarre duel and he and Christian flee the city by balloon, ending up on the Moon. The Moon turns out to be a strange place in which a day is equivalent to a year on Earth, the inhabitants are able to remove their heads whenever they find it convenient and babies grow on trees.

The baron’s adventures cover a considerable time period, facilitated by the fact that the celebrated and notorious wizard Count Cagliostro has endowed the baron the gift of remaining both alive and young for as long as he chooses.

To succeed this sort of material requires an extreme lightness of touch and that is exactly how it is handled. The bizarre nature of most of Münchhausen’s adventures is treated in a matter-of-fact manner. The baron is not the slightest bit surprised to find himself on the Moon. That is after all the direction in which he headed the balloon. He is equally unsurprised by his cannonball ride. If you are going to sit on the barrel of a cannon you must expect that sort of thing to happen. The story is told in such a manner that the audience will be more than happy to suspend their disbelief.

The story does take on a slightly darker tone towards the end as the baron realises that even the greatest of gifts carries a price tag but his cheerful acceptance of this price allows the ending to seem perfectly upbeat. This is a tale that is intended to delight, and that’s what it does.

The movie was shot using the revolutionary new Agfacolor process which was in some ways superior to Technicolor. It’s certainly very different compared to Technicolor. In place of the bright primary colours of Technicolor the Agfacolor process offered soft pastels. Once you become accustomed to it it has to be admitted that Agfacolor looks quite wonderful and while the colours are pastels they are certainly not bland.

The enormous budget was money very well spent. The aim was to showcase the technical achievements of the German film industry and to show that it could match Hollywood with ease when it came to spectacle. The special effects are stunning, even by today’s standards. The sets are sumptuous, the costumes magnificent, and it all manages to be gloriously over-the-top without ever seeming tacky or giving the impression of cleverness for its own sake.

There are moments of sublime outrageousness, notably the wardrobe afflicted by rabies. There are wondrous gadgets, such as a musket that can hit a target at a range of 100 miles (one of Christian’s inventions). The baron also has the services of another useful servant who can run from St Petersburg to Vienna and back within an hour. The living clock is another lovely touch.

Of course none of this would have worked without the right star. Hans Albers is superb. He plays the role with a twinkle in his eyes but without ever succumbing to the temptations of hamminess and he succeeds in making the baron a hero who is sometimes unscrupulous but never unsympathetic.

Münchhausen is superior in every way to Terry Gilliam’s 1988 version which seems by comparison to be trying much too hard.

The F. W. Murnau Foundation did a great job in restoring this movie and particularly in capturing the unique feel of the Agfacolor process.

Kino’s DVD includes various extras, the most notable being an excellent 15-minute introduction to the film by the director of the F. W. Murnau Foundation.

Josef von Báky’s 1943 Münchhausen gets the balance absolutely right. It is an absolute treat from start to finish, visually extraordinary and always entertaining. A truly wonderful movie. Very highly recommended.

Friday 14 February 2014

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Don Siegel’s original 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of the most-discussed of all 1950s science fiction movies. There’s probably nothing that can be said about this movie that hasn’t already been said. But here goes.

I’m sure everyone knows the basic plot of this movie, but there have been several remakes so it’s easy to misremember things from the remakes as having been in the original. For example, the term pod people is not used at all in the original.

The movie opens with a framing story which Siegel reluctantly added when preview audiences found the movie too depressing. 

Dr Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is about to be shipped off to the nut-house after being picked up on the freeway raving about some terrible danger that is about to destroy us. He finally manages to persuade the shrink to let him tell his story.

After being away at a medical conference Bennell returns to the small town of Santa Mira. Life here seems as serene as ever, but there’s some very subtle difference that at first he hardly even notices. Suddenly patients who had wanted urgent appointments with him have decided they don’t need a doctor after all. The few cases he does get are rather puzzling - a young boy who insists that his mother isn’t his mother any more, a woman who is convinced that dear old Uncle Ira isn’t Uncle Ira any more. Uncle Ira still looks the same as ever but she insists that something is wrong, that something is missing.

Miles isn’t too worried until his pal Jack makes a disturbing discovery. He has found a corpse, but there’s something strange about it. The face seems somehow unfinished, more like a wax model than a man’s face. And the corpse has no fingerprints at all. Most disturbingly, this corpse is just about the same height and build as Jack.

Then things get really disturbing. Miles finds another of these strange seemingly not-quite-finished corpses in the basement of the house in which his girlfriend Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) lives. This one looks very much like an unfinished version of Becky. At this point the plot really starts to kick in and Miles realises that the people of Santa Mira are being replaced by exact replicas, perfect in every way except that they seem to be entirely lacking in emotion.

This is classic nightmare paranoia territory. How do you get help in dealing with a situation like this when every person to whom you turn for help could be one of these replica people? Or about to turn into one.

Siegel was a fine director of crime action movies with a hefty dose of film noir and he approaches this movie in exactly the same way. This is science fiction done in pure film noir style. And it works because nightmare paranoia territory is film noir territory. He doesn’t need to adjust his style in any way, and he doesn’t. This gives the movie a feel that  sharply distinguishes it from other 1950s science fiction movies. Siegel uses few special effects. He doesn’t rely on shocks, he relies on suspense and excitement and on driving the story along at the same breakneck pace as his crime movies. This is a science fiction horror movie, but it’s also a classic “couple on the run” movie and it’s also a classic film noir where a man finds that his orderly everyday existence has suddenly turned into film noir nightmare world.

There is not a dull moment in this movie. Even the early scenes, in which superficially everything is pretty normal, are tense because Siegel wastes no time at all in introducing the subtly unsettling elements that immediately tell an audience that the appearance of normality is an illusion, that something terrible is going to happen.

The temptation to give this movie a political interpretation has been impossible for most critics to resist. Attempts have been made to read the movie as an attack on “McCarthyism” but there is absolutely nothing in the movie to support such an interpretation. A far more convincing case can be made for the movie’s being a warning of the dangers of communism. That interpretation at least has the virtue that there’s nothing in the film to contradict it. Yet another interpretation is that the movie is a much broader warning against the dangers of conformity. The truth is that the movie’s great strength is that it carefully avoids any overt political commentary. Most importantly it avoids the dreary and hackneyed themes of calamity being brought about by wicked governments or evil corporations. The danger in the movie comes entirely from outside, it is entirely alien, and nobody is to blame. 

Fortunately there’s absolutely no need to find a political subtext. The movie functions perfectly as a terrifying and exciting science fiction thriller made with superlative style. Siegel was at the peak of his powers and he was never a director who needed a big budget. 

Kevin McCarthy’s casting as the hero was an inspiration. He’s a perfect everyman, a very ordinary man caught up in a desperate struggle for survival. Dana Wynter provides fine support.

Olive Films have as usual offered us an extremely good Blu-Ray transfer with zero extras. This is probably the best this movie is ever going to look and it looks very good indeed.

I've also reviewed the 1978 remake.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of the two or three best science fiction movies of its decade (or any other decade for that matter). It’s also a very stylish unconventional film noir. Whichever way you take it it’s immensely entertaining. Very highly recommended.

Sunday 9 February 2014

Seconds (1966)

Seconds is, as its director John Frankenheimer put it, a movie that went straight from failure to classic status without ever being a success in between. It was a colossal flop upon release but was to become a major cult movie and is now very highly regarded indeed. It is, by a long way, Frankenheimer’s best film.

Seconds is an unconventional science fiction movie. In fact it’s unconventional in almost very possible way and was made in a very unconventional manner. It is a science fiction movie about getting a second chance in life, and it’s a movie about why getting a second chance in life can never work.

Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is a middle-aged banker who is dissatisfied with his life. He’s not quite sure why he’s dissatisfied but he knows that his life is not what he had hoped it would be. Then he gets a strange telephone call from a dead friend. A dead friend who assures him that he is not only not dead, he is more alive than he has ever been. He offers no further explanation but urges Hamilton to go to an address in New York.

Hamilton immediately finds himself in a series of bewildering situations, culminating in his arrival at the headquarters of a company that offers a very special service. It offers rebirth. Of course before you can be reborn you have to die, but arranging deaths is all part of the company’s service. The themes of death and rebirth will recur throughout the movie. After his death his wife will remark that Arthur Hamilton had been dead for a long time before his actual death.

Arthur Hamilton dies in a hotel fire. But Arthur Hamilton is not dead. A corpse provided by the company is the corpse found in the hotel room. Arthur Hamilton is undergoing rebirth. After a series of complicated medical procedures Arthur Hamilton becomes a new man, Tony Wilson, a well-known and successful artist. At this point in the movie Rock Hudson takes over the lead role. If you’re going to be reborn you might as well be reborn as Rock Hudson!

The company has explained to Arthur Hamilton that it will take a while to adjust to his new life as Tony Wilson. Helping clients through this adjustment is another of the company’s services, although at this stage he doesn’t realise just how extensive this service is, or what it will involve.

Tony Wilson is now young, handsome and successful, and with no responsibilities. His life is whatever he wants to make of it. Now he has his second chance, a chance to be what he always wanted to be. It is certainly an opportunity worth dying for. It is a dream come true. Or is it a nightmare? Tony Wilson has everything. Everything but a past. But can a man live without a past? As Frankenheimer says on his commentary track to the movie, the point of the story is that we are what our past made us. Without a past we are not real.

And a sense of unreality pervades the entire movie. Nothing is what it appears to be, no-one is who they seem to be. The sense of unreality is achieved by a series of bold and innovative technical choices. Virtually the whole movie is filmed using wide-angle lens, often very wide-angle lens. There are tilted camera angles and distorted sets. Sometimes literally distorted - one set was built in two versions, one conventional and one wildly distorted. Low-angle shots abound. The framing of shots is bold and unconventional. 

Frankenheimer very generously gives a great deal of the credit for the film’s style to cinematographer James Wong Howe. Howe was one of the truly great cinematographers and this movie is one of his greatest achievements. Howe not only came up with many of the visual ideas, he also did much of the photography himself, actually operating the camera. The movie was made in black-and-white, something that I’m sure must have been very satisfying to Howe, one of the great masters of black-and-white cinematography.

Frankenheimer is equally generous in acknowledging the contributions of other members of the crew, including editor David Newhouse (whose editing is as bold and original and Howe’s cinematography). 

Lewis John Carlino wrote the screenplay and had the very pleasant experience, for a writer, of having his screenplay filmed almost entirely as he had written it. Despite the complexities of the plot the movie holds together perfectly without the necessity of irritating  explicatory scenes. This is a movie that trusts the audience to understand what is going on without having things spelled out.

Rock Hudson considered this to be his finest performance, and with good reason. He has to play a character who is constantly ill at ease, uncomfortable not only in his new life but uncomfortable in his own skin. Which of course is not really his skin at all, since Tony Wilson does not really exist. He is a manufactured person. Hudson conveys all this very effectively and very economically. There are scenes where he has to cut loose, to go over the top, but for the most part he underplays the role very expertly. Hudson’s style of acting was unfashionable at the time. This was the era of the Method, when actors were expected to go about emoting all over the carpet. Hudson’s style is old-school, and the movie is all the better for it. This was the role of his career, and he carries it off with supreme confidence.

This is a science fiction movie, but it’s also a horror movie, although it’s an existential style of horror. The horror of Hamilton/Wilson’s predicament is Kafkaesque rather than gothic. 

Frankenheimer’s commentary track included on the DVD is particularly valuable since this movie was made so unconventionally. It helps a great deal to know how Frankenheimer made it and why he made it the way he did. Almost everything was done in a manner contrary to accepted Hollywood practice. Virtually all the dialogue was post-dubbed. An unusual amount of time was spent rehearsing scenes. The movie was shot mostly in sequence, even when this necessitated calling back actors who had played scenes with John Randolph as Hamilton and later had to play scenes with Rock Hudson. Most scenes were shot using two, and sometimes three, cameras. Even though there are many scenes that take place in moving cars no process shots were used. They were all filmed with cameras mounted on the side of the car. Even a brief scene in an aircraft was shot in an aircraft in flight, even though this required the producers to charter an airliner to do it. Much of this was at James Wong Howe’s insistence. Howe’s determination to get things right even went so far as to insist that the entire crew turn up on a beach at four in the morning so that a scene supposed to take place at dawn could be filmed at dawn rather than at dusk as was the usual practice. The operating theatre scenes are also real and were difficult to shoot since almost every member of the crew present fainted apart from Howe and Frankenheimer.

The insistence on doing things realistically in a fundamentally unrealistic movie was I think a stroke of genius on the part of Frankenheimer and Howe. The whole movie has an air of unreality, but they realised that the use of process shots would have, paradoxically, diminished that feeling of unreality. The unreality is organic to the movie, rather than the contrived unreality of process shots. And it makes the movie feel different, in every sense, from a standard Hollywood production.

Criterion’s DVD release looks superb and includes a host of extras.

Seconds is a strange and disturbing movie which richly deserves its cult status. Very highly recommended.

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.