The Phantom Carriage (1921)


Victor Sjostrom’s the Phantom Carriage (1921) is a strange film. Not story-wise, where it’s a pretty stock morality tale. But in hindsight, as it isn’t too fondly remembered outside of hipster circles (or remembered at all, really) yet it played a pivotal role in the growth of films in general. You won’t read about it mentioned with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, or Robert Wiene’s the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari yet its effect on cinematic special effects and storytelling had a tremendous impact. So much so that none other than Akira Kurosawa himself namechecks it as a guiding inspiration in his Something Like an Autobiography.

One of the Phantom Carriage’s biggest innovations was the use of flashbacks to show the story. A woman wants to see her layabout husband before she dies, and his tale is related through flashbacks. While it doesn’t seem all that amazing nowadays, but remember, this was back when films were still referred to as “moving pictures.”

the Phantom Carriage - the Titular Phantom Carriage

Flashback sequences are easy nowadays that we have the narrative framework in place to show them, but such frameworks didn’t exist in 1921. So filming the Phantom Carriage would be a lot like someone handing you a Polaroid and tasking you to tell a story backwards with it. How would one start?

The answers seem obvious to us now, but this was back in the days where audiences would faint when an on-screen pistol was fired towards the camera. Having a narrative that jumped from past to present and back again was space-aged in 1921. Using in camera double exposures so that the ghosts could walk over and through reality’s obstacles was the equivalent of watching an alien mothership destroy the White House.

the Phantom Carriage - Back in Town

The titular Phantom Carriage is actually a Swedish curse; the last person who dies on New Year’s Eve is charged with driving Death’s carriage and picking up departing souls for a year. Which doesn’t sound like too bad of a deal until you realize that, with the volume of souls needing to be picked up, one Earth day can last Death’s driver a hundred years.

Nearly one hundred years later, and the Phantom Carriage’s special effects still look better than any and all CGI blood.

the Phantom Carriage - Drunkards

Drunken ne’er-do-well David Holm (Victor Sjostrom) is Death’s latest victim. A Salvation Army attendant, Sister Edit (Astrid Holm), wanted to see him once more before she dies, but he’s too busy sitting on the corner drinking with his friends. So David refuses, not realizing that her fatal sickness came from cleaning his germ-laden jacket, gets in a fight with his drunkard friends over his surliness, and dies during the brawl. He’s now tasked with taking over the Carriage driver roll for another of his friends who had departed the previous year.

So the Phantom Carriage is essentially an adaptation of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, but one where Scrooge dies in the second act, and becomes the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Before the change occurs though, he’s visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past of replays his worst moments (besides general drunkenness, David also rips apart his jacket that Sister Edit spent all night mending in a show of pure spitefulness).

the Phantom Carriage - David Witnesses His Family's Murder

Things becoming even harder to bear after the Phantom Carriage driver takes David to Sister Edit’s home to harvest her soul. She, being at Death’s door, can see the spirits, and doesn’t fear her coming demise. She only asks for one more day, so that she can apologize to a man whom she made a promise.

Which is where the Phantom Carriage’s secret weapon, its music, takes center stage. Matti Bye’s reimagined score (the original score was just a hodgepodge of other orchestral bits and pieces) to the film is marvelous; completing evoking the emotions each scene needs. When David becomes a ghost, the orchestra plays shrill high notes that embody his shock and confusion. Each scene having just the right accompaniment to capture the proper emotion.

the Phantom Carriage - David Holm Prays for Forgiveness

The film’s most trying piece, the one which accompanies David reliving his last drunken, violent visit to his estranged wife sounding like an early Danny Elfman piece circa Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Except Elfman never had his melodies slow to a crawl while the unusual nature of his compositions ripped themselves to shreds.

David repenting just in time to stop his grief-stricken wife from killing the children in their sleep to save them from the shame of their family.

the Phantom Carriage - Death's Driver

Rather intense for a film with no spoken dialogue and only a few sepia tones and double exposures to portray its story!


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