Written by: Dale Raulerson
Directed by: Victor Sjöström
Cast: Victor Sjöström, Astrid Holm, Torre Svennberg, Hilda Borgström
The Phantom Carriage is a silent era Swedish movie released in the early part of 1921, directed by and starring Victor Sjöström, who is widely considered the undisputed father of Swedish cinema. After seeing this, I have no doubts as to why. The story of The Phantom Carriage is based on a novel by Selma Lagerlöf, but to the average viewer (especially English speakers) a great number of parallels could be drawn to A Christmas Carol. On New Year’s Eve, a woman on her deathbed calls for a man, David Holm, to be at her side. David, an alcoholic, refuses to come and soon after dies in a street fight. He is then visited by the Phantom Carriage and its grim driver, whom David will have to replace for the next year as penance for his wicked ways in life. The rest of the film covers various flashbacks and a few present day events, fleshing out the relationship between David and the woman, and forcing David to examine his choices and the mistakes that lead him to this point. Even though it is such an old movie and tells such a traditional cautionary tale, it’s a gripping story that really blew me away.
Despite its age, this movie is a visual treat. Sets and costumes capture the setting and atmosphere perfectly and create a very lived in looking world. You get an especially good sense of the poverty and struggle at hand for the characters. Our lead visibly deteriorates throughout the course of the film and his haggard appearance empowers his performance and our understanding of his collapse. It’s not just the physical effects that shine however, but clever editing too. The images of the Phantom Carriage and its deathly driver are superimposed over the “real world” portion of the film, creating a eerily unsettling effect. I found myself impressed with scenes of the ghostly reaper collecting souls even by today’s standards, and I can only imagine how haunting the effect was nearly a century ago.
The film had no original soundtrack upon release, and so it was shown with various pieces played by the accompanying orchestras. In the late 90’s however, a new soundtrack was commissioned from famed Swedish composer Matti Bye, which has since been used in conjunction with all modern releases of the film. This soundtrack is utterly superb. Truly I have never been so engrossed by the soundtrack of a silent film before, given that so many lacked original scores or have simply had their scores lost over time. This music lifts up every scene and is equal parts somber, joyous, and spine tingling. The passion and care that went into creating music that perfectly suited every scene is evident and I really couldn’t imagine the film without this score now.
My singular issue with the film is that there are a great number of scenes where characters appear to be talking but no dialogue cards are used. As such, an impression is given of losing certain context and this also serves to make the movie feel slightly long. Taken as a whole though, this is a minor problem. This movie moved me to tears and had me practically biting my nails in anticipation at its conclusion. Such a great deal of emotion is delivered through minor facial expression and body language, enhanced by a score that flows naturally around every moment. This is a film that I believe needs to be seen by everyone, not just fans of horror or silent cinema.