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Phantom Carriage, The (1921)

Would you look at that? The Criterion treatment!
Would you look at that? The Criterion treatment!

Genre: Silent Fantasy Horror Drama (Sweden)

Starring: Victor Sjostrom (Wild Strawberries), Tore Svennberg

Directed By: Victor Sjostrom (The WindHe Who Gets Slapped)

Overview: On New Year’s Eve, when a man dies at the stroke of midnight, he is cursed to be the psychopomp for the souls in the coming year. When the drunkard David Holm dies, the chariot comes, ready to hand off the reins, but not before showing David the sinful path that lead him to this point.


Years ago, when I began my foray into the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book, I did so chronologically, immersing myself in Silent cinema. I would suggest this approach to everyone who wants to explore the Silents. The paradigm shift can take some getting used to, and being ‘In The Zone’ makes it easier for newcomers to appreciate storytelling without sound. The very best, most famous early Silent films are easy to get into, they’re timeless. Films like City Lights, The General and Nosferatu have nothing to fear from our contemporary audiences, and although The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen in the original Swedish) is not a Chaplin, a Buster Keaton or a Fritz Lang film, it still deserves to be seen. It’s one of my 1001 list favorite Silents, not to mention one of my favorite Silent Horror films.

David Holm (Victor Sjöström) and his friends are in a cemetery drinking to the new year. He tells the legend of the phantom carriage: when a man dies at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, he is cursed to fetch the souls of the dead for the coming year. Meanwhile the dying nurse Edith (Astrid Holm) of the rescue shelter begs that David come to her side before she passes. When the message is passed on, David refuses. His enraged friends fight with him to do the right thing and visit the woman. Unfortunately, this fight ends with David dead at the stroke of midnight. The chariot comes, its reaper showing him the sinful life that ultimately led to his death, and the terrible things he did to cause the suffering of those around him while he was alive.

Drunk in the gutter while the abandonned family looks on. That's a nice guy.
Drunk in the gutter while the abandonned family looks on. That's a nice guy.

At its core, The Phantom Carriage is an emotionally charged morality play, speaking mostly of the evils of drink, and David’s drunken persona is a deliciously malignant one. The story of his deeds is a gloriously dark punch in the gut, every scene another head-shaking moment of downright cruelty. Though sporting the melodramatic air that is typical of Silent Cinema, the performances in The Phantom Carriage aren’t as heavy-handed as in other films of the early 20s, often showing a dimension uncommonly untheatrical. Victor Sjöström in the role of David Holm is a wonder to see on screen. His perfect smile subtly shifts from joyous to maniacal, his anguish is pure, and there’s just something about the way he hold that cigarette and exhales its smoke that exudes a grand presence that’s a pleasure to observe.

The cinematography, though showing heavy traces of grainy, clunky 1921 technology, impresses nonetheless by including several scenes that focus on Horror elements: the ghostly double exposure of the beat-up old carriage and the festering horse pulling it, its reaper picking up corpses and tossing them unceremoniously into his cart. These are haunting images that more than make up for the slower pacing of the life of David and those around him.

Though not a well-known entry in the Silent Classics, the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book is doing a great job of rectifying that by including this eerie tale of a man turned to sin… and hopefully so am I.

A rather impressive reaper indeed.
A rather impressive reaper indeed.

Performance: 8 Cinematography: 7 Script: 7 Plot: 7 Mood: 8

Overall Rating: 74% (Hitch a Ride)

When I originally sought out this film in 2006, it was one of the most obscure and difficult to find on the list. Naturally the 72-minute print was a little rustic. Since that time, the good people at The Criterion Collection have re-released it, and I do believe it’s a 93-minute version. What I do know is that this new digital restoration includes two scores, audio commentary, a better translation, an interview with Ingmar Bergman and more. Oh, I had you at Criterion? Of course I did.

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Enjoying your reviews, I've just started my own quest to watch all these movies... Refreshing to hear someone be so honest about some of these older films. There's so much pressure to go all gooey over them just because they're old and you've been told you must like them... Makes for a far more interesting read than just hearing the same old tripe that's just been regurgitated from what someone else has said...


You should read what I have to say about Dracula then...

poor sod


I have a webpage on Swedish Silent Film and Victor Sjostrom. The double exposure in the film is fantastic.


There are copies of a dvd of this floating around at certain torrent sites and thanks to them I got to see this lovely movie. One of my favorites of the silents I've seen so far.

You are so right about this movie. It is a very watchable movie and one that confirmed for me that I was doing the right thing watching the list, but you also have to be in the zone. Following a bunch of Griffith junk, Körkarlen stands so much taller.

I am curious about the soundtrack on your edition. Mine has an eerie industrial soundtrack that fits it perfectly. Difficult to see how that can be surpassed.

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