Catching Up On ... 'The Phantom Carriage'

“The Phantom Carriage” (The Criterion Collection/Courtesy)

It's hard to imagine a movie like "The Phantom Carriage" being made in the present day.

It's a ghost story, and a pretty simple one at that, one that features no evil spirits or hauntings and has a redemptive ending with a strong morality message at its core. In other words, it's nothing like any of the ghost stories that show up on today's movie screens.

That said, I was actually expecting something a little more macabre when I sat down to watch this. I bought it blind when The Criterion Collection was having one of its regular half-off sales. Any movie distributed by Criterion is almost certainly going to be worth owning for one reason or another, so I figured the company's endorsement of it combined with the premise would be more than enough reason to pick up the newly released Blu-ray. It wasn't what I expected, but that's not a bad thing.

The premise is thus: Whoever dies at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve will be forced to drive Death's carriage and spend at least one year reaping souls and leading them into eternity.

Sounds pretty classically dark, right? That premise might lead one to think that we'd spend most of the film watching as some poor, unfortunate soul must adjust to his newfound duties (or perhaps even tries to find a way to weasel his way out of them). Instead, it actually progresses more like the third act of "A Christmas Carol" combined with "It's A Wonderful Life."

Here, David Holm (Victor Sjöström, who also directed) is the unlucky soul whom Death calls upon. A homeless drunkard, David gets into an alcohol-fueled brawl with some of his fellow vagabonds and suffers a blow to the head, killing him. Meanwhile, a dying Salvation Army nurse named Edit (Astrid Holm) is begging for her friends to bring David to her. She feels personally responsible for David (whom she took care of when he was destitute) and wants to make sure he turns over a new leaf. Little does she know, however, that she is to be David's first soul to take as he is compelled to assume his new duties.

As I said, the story is rather straightforward. The majority of it is actually told in flashback, as we see David being reminded of how wretched a human being he's been to his family, his friends and even to the kindly nurse who wanted nothing more than to give him a warm bed and mend his clothes.

It's not really a scary movie, per se, but it does have some undeniably spooky imagery. In particular, the image of the titular carriage and its driver are a marvel to behold. Originally released in 1921, the double-exposure photography that allows for the ethereal souls and carriage to appear as though they are actual roaming spirits looks every bit as convincing now as I'm sure it did back then. I can only imagine what audiences thought of these visual tricks back then, a time when some honestly thought moving pictures were some form of wizardry.

There's one segment in particular that's simply remarkable to watch. As a woman drowns, her boat thrown against the rocks near the shoreline, the carriage is seen approaching the site on the water, eventually submerging beneath the waves as her soul is claimed. It's eerie and pulled off in a way that effects artists today have to use millions of dollars worth of computers to pull off.

It's also worth noting how different the film as a whole feels. Sjöström eschewed the more exaggerated, "larger" performance style seen in many German and American films of the time, aiming for more subtle work. Gone also are the paled faces, making the actors look far less stylized. The result is a film that feels much less aged, visually speaking, although there's certainly no mistaking it for a modern film, obviously (to say nothing of the fact that it's a silent film, of course).

"The Phantom Carriage" might not have a ton of meat on its bones, but it's certainly a film worth checking out simply based on the strength of the filmmaking.

Next week, I'll continue catching up on some classic horror films with a review of the original "The Creature from the Black Lagoon," the original "The Mummy" and the original "Dracula."

Every week, Entertainment Editor Stewart Smith brings a new entry in "Catching Up On…" an ongoing series attempting to fill in the gaps of his cinematic education.


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