Although it has been predictably labeled a “horror” film by more than a few dull and lazy commentators, Victor Sjöström‘s The Phantom Carriage owes more to Charles Dickens and the literary world of supernatural dreams than it does contemporary, cheapened genre categories. In October of this year, The Phantom Carriage received its long overdue Criterion release. A telling clue to the film’s artistic merits can be heard in the academic commentary by historian Casper Tybjerg. Another valuable and revealing extra in this Criterion edition is an excerpt from a filmed interview with Ingmar Bergman in which the director discusses the influence that Sjostrom and The Phantom Carriage had on his own art. A video essay by historian Peter Cowie, and an accompanying written essay by Paul Mayersberg (screenwriter of The Man Who Fell To Earth) round out a typically impressive Criterion release.
According to the Scandinavian myth, the last person to die on New Years Eve is doomed to be the dreaded coachman for the grim reaper’s chariot until the following New Years Eve. The director himself plays protagonist David Holm, and Sjostrom’s acting is strikingly contemporary in its naturalness, quite the reverse of what we think of in regards to histrionic, stylized silent film acting. Holm, an alcoholic, is killed on New Years Eve and, at the stroke of midnight, it is he who is drafted to be Death’s charioteer. An old acquaintance of Holm’s happened to have been death’s previous coachman and, like Jacob Marley in “A Christmas Carol,” he warns Holm of a spiritually bankrupt state. Indeed, Holm’s life has been one of decay and shocking cruelty, but Sjostrom does not resort to oversimplification. Although Holm has become a sadistic caricature, moments of human warmth still surface, ebbing towards regret and eventual redemption. Compared to Holm, Ebeneezer Scrooge is the stuff of sainthood.
Comparisons to Dickens are apt, but Sjostrom’s film casts an even more complex and lugubrious milieu. The movie is based on Selma Lagerlof’s novel “Korlarlen” and, in contrast to the expressionism popular during the period, Sjostrom opts for a naturalistic setting. While The Phantom Carriage does not take the easy route of escapist fantasy for adolescent boys, that does not mean it is lacking in intensity. One scene clearly seeded Stanley Kubrick‘s idea for Jack Torrance in the unsettling “Here’s Johnny” scene from The Shining (1980) .
The cinematography, by Julius Jaenzon, is exquisitely haunting. Jaenzon’s use of double exposure in the ghostly carriage holds up impressively for a 90 year old film. The Phantom Carriage was released the same year as Charlie Chaplin‘s groundbreaking The Kid. Both films are, rightly, considered spiritually progressive, humanist films of the silent era. However, Sjostrom’s film does not fall into the maudlin sentiment that occasionally mars Chaplin’s premiere feature.
Along with Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, The Phantom Carriage is one of the most important releases of the year. Sjostrom’s influential classic is also among the most long-awaited Criterion releases of early cinema.