Thursday, October 30, 2014

Before I Die #522: The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Original Swedish Title: Korkarlen.

Director: Victor Sjostrom

A silent film that exhibits some impressive advancements for its day. Unfortunately, its day was 94 years ago.

Actually, The Phantom Carriage was a nice change of pace from the other silent films I've watched recently, in that it tells a ghost story in the vein of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, though with a much darker tone. It follows the story of David Holm, a vicious and miserable man who lives for little more than drinking and making other people's lives as unpleasant as his own. he has abused his wife to the point that she has left him, taking their two young daughters. This has sent Holm on a prideful quest for vengeance upon his wife. Along the way, the tuberculosis-stricken man constantly tries to infect others with both his physical disease and his venomous hatred for others.

He tracks his wife to a town where a Salvation Army nurse, Maria, tries to assist him, despite his brutal rebuffs. Maria persists, though, and she does manage to reunite Holm with his wife and children. But Holm is hardly a changed man, and he soon resumes his past abusive behavior. Even worse, Maria has contracted tuberculosis herself, and her health goes into a rapid decline.

Holm's wife eventually leaves him again, and he hits the streets as a hate-filled vagabond. On New Year's Eve, his tuberculosis finally kills him, but this is hardly the end. His soul awakes to find a spectral carriage waiting for him, but not to transport him to the afterlife. As the final person to die before the new year begins, Holm is destined to take the mantle of the coachman, reaping all the dead souls for the following year. The horror-stricken man goes into a panic, and he is forced to revisit all the suffering that he has visited upon others in his life, before he takes on his new posthumous task.

The movie is one of the better ones I've watched from the silent film era, though easily one of the grimmest in overall tone. No other films that I've seen from the time period dealt so readily with spousal abuse, degenerate behavior, and widespread death in the way that The Phantom Carriage did. And the acting, while still far less organic that modern performances, is noticeably more natural than many of its contemporaries, including other classic contemporary films like Broken Blossoms or Way Down East. There are several powerfully brief and subtle facial expressions by Holm that offer the hint of the tortured human beneath the prickly exterior. These more delicate suggestions of character are some of the most engaging in the movie.

While certainly a striking effect, the film gives us overly
long sequences featuring the ghastly coachman riding along
on the phantom carriage.
The movie did, though, require a fair amount of patience on my part. Many of scenes belabor their points a tad too long. This is also true of the special effect of the titular phantom carriage itself. The ghostly appearance of the coach, achieved with double exposure, was surely an impressive and haunting effect back in 1920. The problem is that the filmmakers were all too aware of this and milked it for far too long. There are a few overly long sequences of the carriage slowly moving along different landscapes for minute after minute. The visual ingenuity was probably amazing in its day, but nearly all viewers in the 21st century are likely to find it tiresome.

The Phantom Carriage is a good silent film, but it is still not one that I would recommend to anyone but fans of silent film. Viewers with no interest in films from this era are unlikely to have the wherewithal to sit through its 104 minutes, just to enjoy a handful of transcendent moments.