The Phantom Carriage (1921)
This spooky film from Sweden adds another piece to my “history of horror” that I wasn’t able to get to in the month of October this year. Never mind, November is still a good creepy month, and this movie transcends the horror genre by dealing with issues of morality and personal responsibility, even as it depicts a skeletal horse pulling a transparent buggy.
As the film opens, a young woman (Astrid Holm) is sick in bed, those around her call her “Sister Edit,” and expect her soon to die. We learn that she is with the Salvation Army, that it is New Year’s Eve, and that she has only one wish: to speak with someone named David Holm. His name seems to scandalize her caretakers, but they cannot ignore a dying request, and a search for David is mounted. When we find him (played by director Victor Sjöstrom), he is in a graveyard, enjoying a final toast with other down-and-outs. He tells a story that appears in flashbacks.
In the story-within-a-story, David Holm tells of an old drinking buddy named Georges (Tore Svennberg), who was a bit more educated than most of the dissipated losers of David’s circle. He was always good for a drunken bender, however, except each year at New Year’s he would become taciturn. David asks him about this, and he begins to tell a story, also in flashback. In this story-within-a-story-within-a-story, we see the image of Death, cloaked in a cowl and driving a horse-drawn carriage. It seems that the driver of this carriage is always the last person to die on New Year’s Eve, and that he must serve for the next year collecting the souls of those who die. The punishment is even worse than it sounds, for “a single night is as long as a hundred years” to this figure, no doubt so that he has time to travel all over the world collecting souls with such a slow method of travel. We see the phantom driver pick up souls in a variety of places, including a man who has drowned and is underwater. The souls are lifted from their bodies by the transparent figure of death, coming out as superimposed images on the screen, and carried back to the carriage before the driver pushes on to the next appointment. Georges’ story ends with him saying “now you know why I fear the end of each year.” Holm and his friends laugh and the first flashback ends with him back in the graveyard with his new friends, who are decidedly frightened when they hear that Georges died on the previous New Year’s Eve.
Now one of the searchers finds Holm in the graveyard, and he tells Holm that Sister Edit has called him to her death bed. Holm isn’t interested in going, A fight breaks out, and David is hit on the head with a bottle just before the clock strikes twelve. Now Georges comes to collect David’s soul and tells him that he will have to take his place as the driver of the carriage. Getting the two dead men together gives another opportunity to flash back on how Holm wound up in the position he now holds. When David and Georges met, it seems, he was a working man with a family. But, he enjoyed his liquor and went out with Georges for good times, which began to break up his happy life. One night he is jailed for drunkenness, and he learns that his brother has been sentenced to a long term for killing a man while drunk. When he returns home, he finds that his wife (Hilda Borgström) has taken their children and left, unable to accept the situation any longer. Holm swears that he will avenge himself for her betrayal.
He becomes itinerant in his search for his wife and children, wandering from one town to the next. One night, he stumbles up to the door of a newly-built Salvation Army Mission. The only residents are Sisters Maria and Edit. Maria does not want to answer the bell, as the mission is not officially open yet, but Edit lets him in out of charity. He is gruff and rude, but Sister Edit feels sorry for his plight, and stays up all night repairing his coat. It is revealed that David has contracted consumption, and he doesn’t care about exposing others to the condition. Sister Edit presents him with the repaired coat, and David takes Satanic glee in ripping out the patches. She says she will pray for him and asks him to come back in one year so she can see whether her prayers have been answered.
Now Georges takes David to his first assignment: collecting the soul of Sister Edit. Though no one else can see them, she can because she is so close to death. In some sense, he has kept his promise to return, although not by his own will. Holm falls to his knees and prays to be released from this onerous task. Now another flashback shows how Sister Edit has worked all year to help him, getting him to come to Salvation Army prayer meetings and putting him back in touch with his wife. David takes the opportunity to exact revenge upon Anna by exposing her and the children to his consumption. When she protests, David goes mad and chases her and the children into the kitchen, where she bolts the door. David smashes through the door with an axe, in a scene Stanley Kubrick seems to have lifted for “The Shining.” Anna faints, but David does not actually do them harm, but merely terrorizes them.
Back in the bedroom, Edit begs David’s forgiveness, blaming herself for his magnified sins. He is moved and repentant, and this shows her that her prayers have at last been answered. She is able to die content. Georges does not take her, saying others will come for her (presumably she has earned Heaven’s reward, and the figure of Death comes only to sinners). Now he tells David that Anna, who now has contracted consumption, has resolved to kill herself and them with poison. David suddenly awakes in the graveyard, alive after all and not driving the phantom carriage. He rushes to Anna before she can act and saves her. He begs her forgiveness and promises to behave better, though she is extremely dubious. When he breaks down into tears at her accusations, she finally is convinced that he has changed.
The other Victor Sjöstrom movies I’ve discussed to date have taken place in rural settings, fishing or farming communities that have changed little since the era when the Vikings roamed the seas. Thus, those movies often have the feeling of a traditional Nordic mythos, such as one would find in the Eddas or Sagas. This movie, with its urban setting and modern Christian reformist message, is closer to the progressivist films of D.W. Griffith and other American filmmakers. Those directors, however, made their morality tales from a strictly materialist point of view, avoiding supernatural phenomena like the phantom carriage or the personification of Death. One can choose to read this movie from a materialist perspective – since David wakes up in the graveyard, his experiences could just be written off as a dream – but Sjöstrom sets the audience up to take the phantom driver seriously, as objectively real and the only possible explanation for Holm’s ultimate reformation.
To do this, Sjöstrom takes advantage of techniques pioneered by Georges Méliès, but rarely integrated so effectively into a narrative. The phantom carriage and its occupants are simple superimposed images that appear transparent due to double-exposure. It’s hard to get good stills of them, but when they are in motion, it is easy to pick them out on the screen. This is also one of the earliest movies I’ve seen that completely rearranges its narrative flow through the use of flashbacks (and even a flashback-within-a-flashback). Imagine how differently this movie would be if it began with David and Anna happy and living with their children, and we saw his descent in sequence, with no sense of where it was all going to end. By showing us David as a drunkard at the beginning, and Sister Edit dying long before she would enter the story line, Sjöstrom sets up suspense and a desire to learn who these people are to each other, which wouldn’t exist in a simple narrative. Of course, he is drawing here from modern literature, which had long been using such devices by 1921, but this also differs it from the Swedish folk tale structure of his other movies.
So, is it properly a horror movie or a morality tale? Well, it is a morality tale that relies upon supernatural horror for its redemption narrative. Certainly the image of the cowled driver draws upon long-established images of dread, and setting a good part of the movie in a graveyard helps its atmosphere. But the emotions that it relies on most are regret and sympathy, more than fear, so it doesn’t sit easily on the same shelf with “Halloween” or even “Dracula.” The classic-era movie it probably most closely resembles is “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which a man aided by supernatural insight comes to see where his life has gone wrong. But this is no Frank Capra tale, with its aura of dread and damnation. Influential in both the works of Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick, at the least, it has its place in the history of world cinema beyond that of any genre.
Director: Victor Sjöstrom
Camera: Julius Jaenzon
Starring: Victor Sjöstrom, Hilda Borgström, Tore Svennberg, Astrid Holm, Nils Ahren, John Ekman
Run Time: 1 Hr, 47 Min
You can watch it for free: here.