Some film historians like to look for it near the end of the nineteenth-century, in the early works of Georges Méliès (whose 1896 shorts’ ‘Une Nuit Terrible and Le Manoir du Diable’ showed, respectively, a man being attacked by a giant spider, and a bat metamorphosing into Mephistopheles); some are quite certain that it was Stellan Rye and Paul Wegener’s ‘The Student of Prague’ (1913) that brought all the necessary elements together; others claim that proper horrors were not brought to the screen until after World War I, when they were disguised as masterpieces of German Expressionism (for example, 1920’s ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ and 1922’s ‘Nosferatu’); and yet others argue that no movie before 1931’s ‘Dracula’ can really be labelled a genuine horror movie.
All the aforementioned films were, however, highly inspiring for the future directors, and helped shape the genre as we know it today. Next to these early works that have been a long time ago recognized as groundbreaking and influential, there are still some very important but underappreciated titles.
Victor Sjöström’s ‘The Phantom Carriage’, an atmospheric depiction of the Grim Reaper’s burden, is certainly one of these.
Victor Sjöström himself plays unlikable drunkard David Holm, who treats his two drunkard friends to a ghastly story. His friend, he says, used to believe that whoever dies at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, will be cursed to drive “the Phantom Carriage” and collect the souls of the dead throughout the following twelve months; as bad luck would have it, the superstitious man passed away the previous year, exactly at the dreaded hour.
David Holm does not think there is any truth to the legend of the Carriage, but he savours the cruel irony of the situation. His attitude changes only after he has to deal with the irony of fate himself: not long after having told the grim anecdote, the man is accidentally killed — at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, no less — and his dead friend promptly approaches him and offers him the reins of the Phantom Carriage.
Suddenly, as he sees his own lifeless body lying on the ground, David Holm decides that he wants to live again, and promises that this time he will live a decent life, and will try and make amends for all the things he did wrong.
The dead Carriage driver refuses to help him, and David Holm panics, as fragments of his past deeds come back to haunt him in chaotic flashbacks.
We see how monstrous he was towards his wife, how careless he was about his children and how ungrateful towards a beautiful nurse who tried to help him on a number of occasions.
Among the flashbacks are also interwoven pieces of information on the present state of David Holm’s wife (who is now suicidal) and the kind-hearted nurse (who is now on her deathbed), which constitutes a very complex and demanding structure for the early 1920s, but also mirrors the state of mind of a person who desperately tries to put his or her whole life in order just when it is announced to be over.
The realistic parts of the movie — that is, the scenes that precede David Holm’s death as well as the past events revealed via flashbacks — are compelling because of Victor Sjöström’s directorial talent for creating passages that are not overly exaggerated for effect (for the standards of the silent cinema, at least), but aim to imitate life.
Also, David Sjöström’s convincingly menacing role gives the movie an edge and an aura of authenticity. The fantastic parts, on the other hand, are impressive because of cinematographer Julius Jaenzon’s masterful handling of the trick photography.
Double exposure, also referred to as “spirit photography” because it involves superimposition of images, so that one of them looks “ghostly,” had already been used in cinema before 1921 (it was pioneered by George Albert Smith as early as in 1898’s ‘The Corsican Brothers’), but never to quite such an extent, or with similar skillfulness, as in ‘The Phantom Carriage’.
Victor Sjöström’s movie literally depended on the trick; after all, double exposure was used whenever the two dead men or their carriage appeared on the screen.
Even from today’s point of view, Jaenzon’s job is nothing short of stunning, with the “real” and “ghostly” images always matched perfectly, and always in convincing interaction, so that the viewers can actually feel as if they were caught in another dimension, somewhere in between two worlds — that of humans and that of spirits.
A year before ‘The Phantom Carriage’ was released, Victor Sjöström directed another film that might be of interest to fans of horror, 1920’s powerful gothic tale ‘The Monastery of Sendomir’; it was, however, Victor Sjöström’s inventive tale of life, death and redemption that attracted the attention of film lovers from all over the world.
This soon brought about Victor Sjöström’s emigration to the United States of America where, under the Americanized name of Victor Seastrom, he made several less structurally complex, but nevertheless impressive pictures; the most important of these were the Lon Chaney drama ‘He Who Gets Slapped’ (1924), ‘The Scarlet Letter’ (1926), and the unforgettable study of madness ‘The Wind’ (1928), the latter two starring Lillian Gish.
When the era of silent movies ended, Victor Sjöström briefly tried his hand at talkies, but did not manage to equal his masterpieces and his career as a director came to a halt with the swashbuckling adventure movie ‘Under the Red Robe’ (1937), with Conrad Veidt in the leading role.
Victor Sjöström did not quit acting, though, and from the 1930s to the late 1950s appeared in many Swedish films.
Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Wild Strawberries’ (1957) gave him his last and greatest role, and was also a tribute to ‘The Phantom Carriage’ (it deals with the familiar themes of mortality, loneliness, emotional coldness and forgiveness; and here, just like in the movie he directed over three decades earlier, Victor Sjöström plays a man who refuses to evaluate his life until the nightmarish moment when he comes face to face with his own corpse).
‘The Phantom Carriage’ is a rare example proving that in the early years of cinema, German filmmakers were not the only ones who could handle dark themes masterfully.
The movie has now inspired several generations of artists, genre and otherwise (most notably, Ingmar Bergman), and allowed director Victor Sjöström with cinematographer Julius Jaenzon to perfect the “spirit photography” to a striking effect.