Movie Review: The Phantom Carriage (1920)

For someone who touts himself as a film buff who has seen many different kinds of movies throughout many different eras, the one style that I have always had a problem sitting through are silent movies. Masterpieces such as Nosferatu and Metropolis have only garnered my attention for roughly half of the showing before I quit—perhaps I should give them another go. Nevertheless, to date, I have only been able to sit through two in their entirety: Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (I am also a big fan of his groundbreaking horror flick Vampyr, which is nearly silent, save for a few sounds and lines of dialogue here and there that do not really advance the story), and after last night, The Phantom Carriage, directed by Victor Sjostrom. I decided to take a gamble and buy the Criterion Collection edition of the film on Blu-Ray, after being captivated by its eerie cover picture of a ghostly carriage, with a sickle in the hands of its driver. I have never been so engrossed by a silent film, and never thought it would even be possible. The background music certainly helped it along, and overall, it was an outstanding viewing experience.

Do I even have to bother lauding Criterion yet again, for making this more than 90-year-old film look incredible? There are also two choices of music available to listen to, one being a typical orchestral piece by Matti Bye, and the other from a band called KTL, which uses an experimental electronic sound. Per recommendation, I chose this one, and was mesmerized by the haunting tones presented, which really ease the film along and make it more enjoyable. As for other technical aspects, I must credit Sjostrom for being a man before his time. Though most of the film is in the normal tint-type color for the time period, several scenes are in different colors, the product of some kind of filament placed over the lens. This was done in order to set the tone for the audience, as well as suggest the type of mood present in the scene. This includes yellow, red, and a very awesome blue color, which is used primarily when the phantom driver is busy at work with his deeds.

And what deeds are these? Well, the film tells of an old legend that says that the last person on earth to die before the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve is damned to a year’s service (the film noting it seems like an eternity) of driving Death’s carriage, collecting the souls of all the people who die so they can move on to the next world. The main character, being an alcoholic who lost his entire family due to his actions and is now homeless, becomes this driver later on in the film, and through flashbacks, is shown some of the mistakes he had made in life. It is almost like A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, by using ghosts to tell a morality tale. It is during the scenes of ghosts where the special effects will blow you away. Let me make it clear: the special effects are not great for a 90-year-old movie…they are just great in general! Being able to see through the ghosts as well as seeing souls climb up out of their dead bodies while the body still remains in place will stun you. The best part is that it is not easy to detect any camera trickery on behalf of Sjostrom. He was able to do it so well that even today it appears to look real, unlike so many older films which have become laughable. There really is no excuse for filmmakers today, who rely on computer generated special effects, which look awful, when this man was able to accomplish such realism and fantasy with nothing but a hand-cranked camera and a clever editor.

The acting is also a pleasure to watch, as the performances are not melodramatic and hammy, two things that plague most films of the silent era. This is a sincere portrayal that will really envelop you in the story, and sweep you away with what you are seeing on-screen. This is one of those times where just everything works: the acting, special effects, and music, as well as the wonderful film restoration job that Criterion has done. While I would not regard this as a horror movie, it is metaphysical enough to keep you thinking and entertained. This is the type of film that tells a legend fitting for a late Halloween night viewing. The Phantom Carriage may be the silent film for the non-silent film fan. It is a timeless tale that has withstood the test of time, and for that reason, I highly recommend you go out and buy it. 8/10 stars from me.

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