"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

December 21, 2011

"The Phantom Carriage" (1921) by Sjöström (Film review)

The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen, 1921) by Swedish director Victor Sjöström is marketed as a horror film, but nothing could be farther from the truth. In reality it is a Christian morality tale of Sunday School inspiration, decked out with all the cheap and sentimental stuff imaginable (alcohol addicts; brutish violence; fatal illness; the deathbed of a good Christian; a renegade father who tries to breath TB germs on his own kids; an almost suicide of a desperate mother and her children). That is how some people a century ago liked their stories.

Salvation Army nurse Edit (Astrid Holm) lies on her deathbed. She is dying from tuberculosis given her by alcohol-addict David Holm (Sjöström), a man she has tried to reform, but without success. She wants to see him again, but Holm is drinking with a couple of guys in the local graveyard, and hit with a bottle during a drunken brawl. Suddenly, a ghostly carriage with the "grim reaper" on the coach appears to collect his spirit, but instead of carting him off, the Reaper shows him flashbacks of some disastrous scenes from his wasted life. Luckily, as Holm is not really dead, he can still reform and save his wife and two kids who were going to drink poisoned tea. Ouch.

The ghostly carriage finds its origin in Scandinavian legend. It collects only souls that are refused entry into Heaven, and the driver is himself also such a black soul – the last one to die in the old year before the clock strikes twelve. In fact, the present driver is an old buddy of David who died a year ago. He would like to shift his heavy job onto David's shoulders for the new  year. The ghostly carriage has been made properly ghostly by using double exposure, and the director seems to have liked this technique so much that he rather overdoes it. More impressive is the scythe carrying figure of the driver, the “grim reaper,” – this image formed the inspiration for the figure of Death in Bergman's Seventh Seal (see my review of this film).

Amid all the tears of this multiple handkerchief film, there is one scene that stands out: at a certain moment, David Holm when chasing his wife, goes berserk and smashes in a door with an axe. Where have you seen this before? It was borrowed lock, stock and barrel by Kubrick in The Shining: "Heeeere's Johnny!"
The Phantom Carriage is available in the Criterion Collection.
(Revised August 2014)