The Phantom Carriage A 100-Year-Old Masterpiece

By RodneyHatfieldJr for Movies

“It is no ordinary driver who holds the reigns, for he’s in the service of a strict master named Death. For him, a single night is as long as 100 years on Earth. Night and day, he must carry out his master’s business.”

One of my personal favorite films is Victor Sjöström’s 1921 silent film, The Phantom Carriage. It centers on one despicable man forced to take a hard look at himself and his life when he’s poised to become Death’s newest carriage driver. Yes, it is a silent film, and yes you are wrong if you dislike it. I rarely disagree with anyone's taste in films, but this one is a top-tier horror classic. This is also a favorite of most of the horror industry.

Back in the infancy of cinema, Sjöström wrote, directed, and stars as David Holm, an unlikable alcoholic that’s abusive toward his wife and child who is eager to spread his tuberculosis (consumption) to others. When a dying woman’s request to speak with him at her deathbed is refused. A fight breaks out that brings Death’s carriage that comes to collect him. It’s driven by deceased mate George (Tore Svennberg), who died the previous News Years Eve. Whoever, is the last to die on New Year's Eve is forced to drive the carriage for one year. It is also revealed that every day feeling as long as a century for Death’s driver (meaning 1 year feels like 36,500 years). Because the carriage travels and picks up bodies from all over the world. However this night George also acts as a confrontational guide through David’s life told in four lengthy and nonlinear flashbacks.

Sjöström adapted the 1912 novel Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! by Nobel Prize-winning author Selma Lagerlöf. The striking allegory for second chances is made even more profound by the film’s special effects. Superimposition and double exposure gave translucent quality to the phantom carriage and its spirits. The images are very haunting. It’s a visual effects breakthrough that holds up even after a century.

The Phantom Carriage is horror, supernatural, and psychological that weaves a web of intervention to scare David straight and to scare its audience. The Gothic imagery and the spectral quality of Death’s carriage are enough to firmly place it into horror fame. David Holm is a true monster. He nearly murders his wife with an ax in a drunken fit (that plays out almost exactly like the Shining). She comes away unharmed, but Sister Edit contracts Tuberculosis from David. Sjöström gives thematic and emotional depth through bold composition and artistry, and an unflinching eye, making The Phantom Carriage an influential masterpiece.

Coming in at 107 minutes, this is a short but fulfilling film. You can find it on most streaming channels, but I would recommend the Blu-ray. They have cleaned up the quality soundtrack and restored the film. This version is far superior to most copies on the internet. Here is a studio made trailer (The original didn't have one)

This must watch classic stars; Victor Sjöström, Hilda Borgström, Tore Svennberg, and Astrid Holm. The message is universal; it’s never too late to course-correct and atone for past sins.

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