The Criterion Corner – THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE (1921)

 

Wow.

This film. Just, wow.

I went totally blind into this film, apart from the short description on the back of the case. I was sold completely on the idea of the film just from a few short paragraphs. A tale from Swedish folklore, The Phantom Carriage, is a story of heart and redemption played out in a backdrop of death and disaster.

Like many things, it starts small: A dying salvation army nurse, Sister Edit, asks one final wish before death drapes across her. She asks to speak to David Holm. David, an alcoholic wreck, is sitting in a cemetery with two other ne’er-do-wells waiting for the clock to strike midnight on New Years Eve. He tells a story, told to him by a friend name Georges, that the last person to die when the clock chimes 12 on New Years Eve is then indebted as Death’s carriage driver for the next year. The other bums become frightened after the story is told, and they attack David, accidentally killing him. The clock strikes 12, and the carriage calls for David.

What happens after this is a story of deep human emotion. This, even though a silent film, screams at your heart and begs you to learn a lesson from poor David. It tries to teach you that it is never too late to be a good person.

Think A Christmas Carol only way more depressing.

The Phantom Carriage was made in 1921 and was one of the earliest films to use double exposure effects to show ghostly figures across a dark background. It also tells much story through flashbacks, and flashbacks WITHIN flashbacks, and it’s done incredibly well. It’s not a hard story to keep up with, but it is a story that will keep your interest from the first bleak opening frames. At times my jaw was dropped on the floor as I had to wrap my brain around the concept that I was watching a film from 1921 and not modern day. It’s that good. It feels so eerie without ever going over the top. It never really enters horror film domain, but instead remains a somber fairy tale. It walks that perfect balance while always putting characters first and foremost. Other worldly. My new Halloween stand by.

David and Death’s Driver

Visually, the film hits the perfect tones of ghostly dread. When we follow David inside a building, the scene tints sepia, outside a dark blue, in flashback a melancholy red. It’s so small but so important to the overall feel of the story. On top of that, the score is RIDICULOUS. My fiancee was in another room when I was watching the film and she came in after it was over and said, “That music was wonderful and I want it!” And I agree, whole heartedly.

Victor Sjorstrom is a brilliant director and actor. Ingmar Bergman sites this as one of this favorite films ever, even going so far as to cast Sjostrom in his Wild Strawberries. While I find most silent film acting to be hokey and extravagant, The Phantom Carriage is far from such things. In fact I would say it’s some of the best acting I’ve seen in recent memory. The actors all have insane depth and when they cry they don’t do it to play to the audience, they do it because they understand how character growth works. David weeps over his wife, and we weep with him. He isn’t doing it for attention or applause, he just does it because he has to.

I would say that The Phantom Carriage has moved into my top 20 favorite films after one viewing, if that says anything.

Now, the disc itself.

I have the DVD of this film, as getting a silent flick on Blu-Ray doesn’t seem to add much to it. I bought Kino’s Sherlock Jr. release, and was pretty impressed with the sound, but it wasn’t anything spectactular.

You get a beautifully packaged disc, along with a nice booklet insert featuring an in-depth essay by Paul Mayersberg.

I swear the aesthetics of Criterion discs are worth the money alone.

You get some cool interviews with Bergman, two tracks with different musical scores, a commentary with Swedish film historian Casper Tybjerg, footage of the studio construction for the film, and of course a completely remastered picture and audio track.

I linked directly to the Amazon page, so if you want the film just click on the movie poster up top.

I can’t recommend this film enough. It’s spooky, atmospheric, and beautiful.

Until then,

– Phelps

 

Originally posted 2012-09-24 01:00:24. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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