We Live 1001: The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Audrey Fox continues the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list with The Phantom Carriage, written, directed, and starring Victor Sjöström.

We Live 1001 is a new column from Audrey Fox, where she will be going through the Top 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list in chronological order. We’ll be covering a new film on the list every week. Pull up a chair, and let’s delve into some cinematic history!

Buckle up everyone, because we’re about to enter a period of near-complete European dominance on this list. Hollywood is still percolating in the very early 1920s, figuring out how to balance art and commerce in the uniquely powerful way it would be known throughout the so-called golden age of cinema. But the movie industry was alive and well in Sweden, Germany, and France (amongst other countries), each cultivating a creative aesthetic that would influence directors for generations to come. This week, we’re taking some time to celebrate the father of Swedish cinema, Victor Sjöström, and his seminal 1921 classic The Phantom Carriage, a technologically advanced and quietly meditative film that is part horror, part morality tale, and part heartfelt family drama.

It’s New Year’s Eve, and a pious Salvation Army missionary is on her deathbed. She wants to see David Holm (played by Sjöström himself) because he must be saved before she dies. Holm is a drunken ne’er-do-well, regaling his friends with the legend of the Phantom Carriage, a ghostly vessel driven by the last soul to die on New Year’s Eve each year, who is tasked with the gruesome business of serving as grim reaper until the next New Year when someone else takes their place. But when Holm is killed in a tussle with his friends just as the clock is striking midnight, the Phantom Carriage comes for him, and he is taken on a Dickensian journey to reflect on his wasted life.

If there’s one thing The Phantom Carriage has in spades, it’s a sense of atmosphere. The night sequences are shrouded in misty shadow, and the images of the Phantom Carriage itself rolling slowly but inevitably through each scene are absolutely breathtaking in their ability to evoke a creeping, unsettling dread. It is a sight unwelcome to any man, but especially for one with as many reasons to fear meeting his maker as David Holm has. A chilling visual for all of its metaphysical significance, it’s also equally impressive from a technological standpoint. As soulful and deeply human as The Phantom Carriage, it partially earns a prominent position in film history for its incredibly inventive use of special effects. 

The narrative is complex and ambitious, using interwoven plots and extensive flashback sequences to depict David Holm’s formerly happy life and descent into ruin. It trusts the audience to follow along with a non-linear storyline, which in 1921 was far from unheard of but still something of a novelty. But it’s truly innovative in its use of double exposure. This would allow the ghostly carriage to travel through otherwise ordinary scenes, pale and partially transparent, in the world but not of it. The sophistication of this cinematic technique would go far beyond anything seen before. Here, we don’t have ghosts just hovering in the sky, visible but completely disconnected from their surroundings — they look as though they have the power to seamlessly interact with objects and even other characters on screen.

When it comes to the more traditional elements of the narrative, Sjöström has a straightforward directing style. But there’s something in how he films his characters that allow their performances to jump off the screen. They have a naturalistic sense of emotion that feels far different from the more presentation style seen in many other silent films from the period. You can feel their devastation, regret, and fear as they navigate life’s hardships and the great unknown of what happens after death. Sjöström himself is especially effective as David Holm, moved to tears by his own guilt and grief.

The Phantom Carriage benefits from a gorgeous restoration courtesy of Criterion, which allows the natural soulfulness of the original film to shine through without the distraction of badly damaged celluloid. In particular, they’ve added a fantastic score from Swedish composer Matti Bye, whose plaintive strings add a wistful quality to the production. I don’t normally comment on the modern refurbishment of older films because they aren’t necessarily the filmmakers’ original vision. Still, The Phantom Carriage is particularly well-done and worthy of note.

With its impressive visual effects, naturalistic performances, and soulful directorial style, The Phantom Carriage seems somehow incredibly modern and sophisticated. It stands out as one of the most significant films in Swedish cinematic history. (And when you can claim Ingmar Bergman as one of your own, that’s saying something.) Its quietly meditative approach to questions of life, death, and the afterlife would serve as a template for horror and fantasy films for decades after its release.

Written by
Audrey Fox has been an entertainment journalist since 2014, specializing in film and television. She has written for Awards Circuit, Jumpcut Online, Crooked Marquee, We Are the Mutants, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic. Audrey is firm in her belief that Harold Lloyd is the premier silent film comedian, Sky High is the greatest superhero movie ever made, Mad Men's "The Suitcase" is the single best episode of television to date, and no one in the world has ever given Anton Walbrook enough credit for his acting work. Her favorite movies include Inglourious Basterds, Some Like It Hot, The Elephant Man, Singin' in the Rain, Jurassic Park, and Back to the Future.

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