The Phantom Carriage - A Bit of Class Between Wiener Jokes
Or as the Swedes call it, Körkarlen. We’ll get there fast and then we’ll take it slow.
Another Halloween season has come and gone, but that doesn’t mean the horror has to stop. We here at terribleblog.net face the existential terror of life every waking moment. I’d like to begin our post-Halloween parade of content by talking to you about a horror movie that isn’t absolute bottom-feeder garbage. Not that being a dumpster of a film is necessarily a bad thing; some of the best horror movies are trash, and this site specializes in cinematic refuse. However, I decided I could try and class things up a little by including a review of a black and white, silent, Swedish movie from the 1920s.
Give us Barabbas!
Now, now, hear me out. I know this is the type of movie that's almost entirely at odds with the vast majority of content on this site, but it doesn't hurt to look at something a bit more critically acclaimed than a Hellraiser sequel.
The Phantom Carriage (also known as Körkarlen in Sweden) begins on New Year's Eve, with a Salvation Army Sister (named Edit, which should prove to be particularly confusing for my copy editor) lying in her bed, dying of tuberculosis. The only thing she wants before she slips into the icy coffin of death is to see one man: David Holm. Holm is a local inebriate out drinking with friends, relating to them a classic ghost story: on New Year's Eve (this very night!), the grim reaper will haunt the earth in an incorporeal carriage, scouring the globe. His search is not just for any deceased individual; he is looking for the final human to perish at the stroke of midnight, for this fresh soul will replace the reaper on his morbid occupation.
Lo and behold, the rumor comes true, as Holm dies that evening in a brawl and the reaper who visits him is none other than his old friend, Georges. Georges reveals that the legend is true, and it is now Holm’s turn to wander the earth, collecting souls and delivering them unto the spirit realm. What follows is a Christmas Carol-esque visit into Holm’s deeply troubled past, as he comes to grips with the pain he’s inflicted upon those close to him and how he can possibly repent.
The Phantom Carriage (originally written as a book by the name “Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness!”) was commissioned as an educational device on the dangers of tuberculosis (then called consumption) and the spread of the disease. Its author Selma Lagerlöf decided that instead of distributing the same pamphlet you see in doctor’s offices about washing your hands and not coughing in other people’s faces, she’d write a genuine horror story. I haven’t read the book, but I’m willing to bet all my krona that the film adaptation is a lot better.
I’m more of a sucker for old movies than most people, so I might be somewhat biased, but every time I reminded myself that this was made in 1921, I was even more impressed. The effects used to convey a sense of terror were highly advanced for the time; director Victor Sjöström really went all out with double exposure and multiple layers to create the otherworldly effects of the titular carriage and the deceased spirits. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these effects went on to inspire effects used in the excellent Night on Bald Mountain segment in Disney’s Fantasia 19 years later.
The influences don't stop there.
This is a less humorous review than I’m used to writing, but The Phantom Carriage is a humorless movie – and that’s not a bad thing. A lot of people have called Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street classic ghost stories – and I suppose they are, in the sense that they sound like genuine stories you make up to freak people out around a campfire. This story, however, feels so much more timeless and realistic, and it’s partly because the movie actually bothers to make the myth part of the story. Friday the 13th tried the same thing, but there was never quite as foreboding. There are several soundtracks available for The Phantom Carriage, but the one I sound has one of the most haunting soundtracks I’ve ever heard; it’s on par with Akira Yamaoka’s masterful score in the original Silent Hill games. Even in normal scenes showing an ostensibly happy family, the score is there, letting you know that you can never quite feel safe.
Like any horror movie, you can poke holes in it wherever you feel inclined. The belief in a grim reaper is about as ancient as Earnest Stoneman, tuberculosis has long since been taken care of with the advent of antibiotics, and the film’s legend only really works if you’re watching it on New Year’s Eve. Regardless, it’s a hell of a lot easier to suspend your disbelief than, say, the Child’s Play series. The Phantom Carriage is just dripping with atmosphere; you feel cold and isolated and apprehensive while you’re sucked in.
There are plenty of great silent movies from the silent era (Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are especially worth seeing), but The Phantom Carriage continues to take up residence in my craw. The only other movie from around the same time period (at least in the cultural memory of things) that holds anywhere near the same amount of reverence in my mind is 1932’s Freaks, and that movie had the benefit of sound (and, to be perfectly fair, a much better ending). I’d like to hope that I’m giving the impression that The Phantom Carriage has earned more than a recommendation from me; it’s practically required viewing for horror fans. It’s not the best horror movie I’ve ever seen, but the influence, atmosphere, soundtrack, and visual effects (couched in the for-their-time caveat, naturally) all combine to make something that people need to see. Besides, without this movie, we might not even have the works of Ingmar Bergman.