With its story within a story within a story, The Phantom Carriage strikes me as being ambitious for a 1921 silent film. Not only that, but with its Twilight Zone feel and hint of A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life, it seems ahead of its time. If you’re skeptical, Stanley Kubrick borrows a scene straight out of it for his 1980 horror masterpiece, The Shining.
Told in four parts, The Phantom Carriage begins with a “poor Salvation Army sister at death’s door.” As a final wish, Edit (Astrid Holm) asks her friend, Maria (Lisa Lundholm), to find David Holm. We’ll spend most of the movie wondering why she wants to see him. By the end, the mystery is solved in a scene that occurs in the same place the movie starts.
It's New Year’s Eve and three men sit drinking under a clock in the graveyard. One of them tells a story about his friend called Georges (Tore Svennberg) and our first flashback begins. Georges tells his friends over a card game that whoever dies last before midnight must drive the “cart of death” in the “strict service of Death.” The horse and cart remain the same, but the driver may vary.
We then witness images of the ghostly carriage and its hooded driver with a scythe retrieving spirits from two dead bodies. He phases through the front door of a rich man’s house to find his body on the floor after shooting himself, and he walks along the bottom of the ocean to find a man who drowned. What may seem like primitive special effects today are all that’s required here to generate some genuine chills.
In part two, we learn that the storyteller in the cemetery is David Holm (Victor Sjostrom) and that Georges is the current driver of the phantom carriage. A scuffle among the men breaks out and David is killed at the stroke of midnight. Georges arrives, raises his spirit out of his body, and tells him he must face the consequences of the evil he has wrought in his life.
Another flashback occurs and we see what brought David to this point. In a way, driver Georges acts as the ghost of Christmas past or as Clarence the angel, showing David the last year of his life. When his brother was convicted of killing a man while intoxicated, David claimed to know what it felt like to bring misery on a loved one and promised to turn over a new leaf. He doesn’t quite manage to do that…
…as we see in part three. Returning home after his stint in prison for drunken behavior, David finds the apartment empty. He thought he would return to his wife, Anna (Hilda Borgstrom), with such joy, but decides that her “slinking off like that” is heartless. He vows to find her and teach her how it feels to be betrayed. Feelings of hatred and revenge grow stronger during the search for her.
David meets Edit when he’s taken in at a new Salvation Army station. He’s belligerent and rude to her and Maria, but Edit has a heart of gold and prays for her guest to be blessed in the new year. She asks him to visit her next New Year’s to see if her prayer is answered. Back at the graveyard, Georges tells David it is time for him to honor her request.
As we learn in part four, there’s more to the story. There’s a reason Edit is determined to see David again before she dies. Then there’s got to be redemption for the Ebenezer Scrooge/George Bailey character at the end. If you doubt that he needs it, watch him confront a woman who covers her mouth when she coughs. He says he’s also “consumptive,” but he hopes to kill people by coughing on them.
In part five, the final part, David delivers the Jack Torrance axe scene 59 years earlier than The Shining. After finding his family, he comes home drunk and begins to abuse them. Given the opportunity, Anna locks him in the kitchen. He finds an axe under the sink and begins chopping his way through the door. A shot from the living room shows the partially destroyed door with David’s face behind it, arm reaching through.
I really liked The Phantom Carriage. I watched the restored version released by the Criterion Collection with an experimental score by KTL. I don’t recommend watching it with this music. It’s appropriate and unsettling at times but it’s less melodic music than it is ambient tones… repetitive ambient tones. It gets less intrusive in later parts, but had worn out its welcome long before then.
I’m a sucker for a sweet ending and this movie has one. Earlier, Georges tells David that if he could, he would send mankind a New Year’s message that their souls come to maturity before they are reaped. We’ll hear that phrase again and when we do, the entire story comes together. Considered one of the central works in Swedish film history, The Phantom Carriage is a true classic.
Written by Victor Sjostrom
Directed by Victor Sjostrom
Based on the novel by Selma Lagerlof
Starring Victor Sjostrom, Hilda Borgstrom, Tore Svennberg, Astrid Holm
Released January 1, 1921 (Sweden)
RT 107 min.
Home Video The Criterion Collection (DVD, Blu-ray)