Sunday, 6 November 2011

Humanistic horror? The Phantom Carriage (1921)

The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen) is a renowned film directed by and starring Victor Sjöström. I'd has this on the shelf for some time and,after flipping a coin between it and Häxan, watched it on Halloween. I was expecting an horror story with an atmosphere to fit the occasion, but, what you get from Phantom Carriage is not just ghosts, special effects and the chill of mortality, it's a very human tale that challenges the viewer to wake up and grow up.

The story begins on New Year's Eve at the death bed of a salvation army worker, Edit (Astrid Holm), who calls out for a last visit of one David Holm (Sjöström). But Holm won't come, preferring to carry on getting sloshed in the graveyard with his drinking buddies.

He tells them of a tale concerning a carriage driven by the last person to die in each year, that takes the spirits of the dead to their afterlife. A fight breaks out and Holm himself becomes the last fatality before the clock strikes midnight. He is greeted then by the phantom carriage and its ghostly driver, his friend and the man who first related the tale, Georges (Tore Svennberg). George it was who first led Holm into the life of drunken depravation and here he has come to collect Holm's mortal soul and take it to account for the life he has led.

It is now that the real horror begins as we learn about the un-making of the man through a series of intricate flash backs that gradually tie up the backstory.

Sjöström acts his sock off as the wastrel Holm who gives in to a life of alcoholic self indulgence, dragging down all those around him in the same way he was sucked in. Neglecting those he loves he drinks away health and wealth, forcing his wife to take their children and flee.

He pursues them across Sweden and ends up seeking refuge at the Salvation Army hostel run by Edit. She tries to help him by mending his jacket but he cruelly rips apart her handiwork and tells her he needs no saving. She is not deterred and keeps on trying to help him, ultimately sacrificing her own happiness so that he can be re-united with his family.

But Holm looks beyond help and he seems doomed. It is only when his wife is about to take her own life and those of their children that he finally decides that enough is enough. But is it too late?

This is a pretty uncompromising film that takes any lazy preconceptions by the throat and hands them back to you in pieces. Genuinely moving and thought provoking; the true horror is in what people do to each other and themselves and the chances they let go.

The film's prayer is "Lord, let my soul come to maturity before it is reaped…" and this seems to me a very humanistic sentiment: let me comes to terms with who I am before it is too late.

The Phantom Carriage is superbly constructed with great acting and innovative production - there is extensive use of double exposure to create the transparency of the carriage and its un-living passengers. It deserves its ranking as one of Sjöström's and silent film's very best pictures but not necessarily in the way I expected.

Tribute to the extraordinary and enduring talent of Mr Sjöström... still making people think 90 years on! Jag hälsar er sir!

The Tartan DVD comes with a challenging modern soundtrack composed by KTL a musical duo consisting of Stephen O'Malley (of drone metal funsters Sunn O)))) and Peter Rehberg (Pita). It's not synchronised exactly to the action but interwoven thematically, matching the mood with raw yet delicate tonal extrusions.

Still available from Amazons worldwide.


  1. Hi Paul

    Is in "stand by", for viewing, so I think I'll read your post later.


    PD: lately you go 6-speed.

  2. Thank you for introducing me to so many fabulous silents. Excellent posts.

  3. Thanks for the feedback FlickChick! It's good to share and there is so much to enjoy about these films.