Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Phantom Carriage (1921)

I figured I'd kick off my October Horrorfest with a silent horror film and gradually work my way up through the years.  Some of the postings this month will be familiar, others maybe not so much.  The postings may be short for the familiar films so as not to reiterate information about the films that everyone, including myself, could probably recite the dialogue to verbatim.  So with this out of the way ...  On to the next ...

You know, when I first watched The Phantom Carriage I really didn't think much about it.  I thought it was okay.  And then,  for some reason, I kept thinking about it over the next couple of days, and the imagery and scenes from the film just kept popping into my head.  Then, thinking about it again, I finally came to the conclusion that it was actually quite good.  The film has a haunting and musical score to go along with the sad and tragic tale.

Based on Korkarlen, a novel by Nobel prize winner Selma Lagerlof, the film was an inspiration for Ingmar Bergman.  As Swedish legend and folklore states, "the last sinner to die on New Year's Eve before the clock strikes twelve is condemned to drive the "Phantom Carriage" until the following New Year's Eve, collecting all the recently departed souls along his endless journey".  And every day that passes in the living world is like a year for the driver of the carriage, so the passage of time literally feels like an eternity.

The story has a Dickensian kind of feel and look to it.  On New Year's Eve a man dies and is forced to look back on his wasted life and to realize the impact that he had on others around him.   The film is extremely dark and has a very eerie and creepy atmosphere.  It becomes extremely intense as it follows David Holm, played by the director of the film Victor Sjostrom, in his self destructive spiral and degradation from a happy family man to a miserable, abusive, and spiteful drunkard.  In all honesty, I found some scenes in the film painful and agonizing to watch at times.

On New Year's Eve Holm and two other drunks are in a cemetery as midnight slowly approaches.  Holm brings up the legend of the "The Phantom Carriage" to his companions.  An argument begins and a fight breaks out. Holm is struck with a bottle and killed as the distant clock tower begins to strike midnight.  Much to Holm's horror he observes the ghostly carriage and driver approaching.  Compounding his terror even further, David recognizes the driver as his friend Georges (Tore Svennberg) who had died the previous New Year's Eve, and whose place he must now take.

Refusing to go with the driver, Holm is bound and forced to view all the suffering caused by the violent and drunken path he has followed in his life.  From the abuse inflicted on his wife and children and the corruption of his friends and relatives, to the act of intentionally contaminating and spreading his tuberculosis to people who had tried to help him, namely a sweet and innocent volunteer nurse named Edit (Astrid Holm) who worked at a Salvation Army type shelter.

Sjostrom uses tinting and double exposures in his production of the film with great effect, and it still holds up extremely well even ninety years later.  The score by Swedish composer Matti Bye is amazing even going as far as mimicking the screeching and grinding of the carriage wheels.

I don't really know if it's the imagery of the film or the storyline itself, but I have a feeling that anyone who views this film won't soon forget it.  It's a very powerful story and I know it's left a lasting impression on me.  Watch one of the creepiest trailers you'll ever see here.

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