‘The Phantom Carriage’ (1921) dir. Victor Sjostrom
‘Lord, please let my soul come to maturity before it is reaped’
There’s a certain feeling that Halloween used to invoke when I was younger. It was a fun combination of dread and danger, ghost stories, candy and staying up late. It was crawling under a blanket on the couch and watching PG-Rated haunters with my parents or friends who would come over for a sleepover.
As I grew older this ambiance was replaced with R-Rated films and even more R-Rated shenanigans. It became profanity-laced MST3K style drinking bashes with my friends while watching zombies tear flesh and women get naked. Over the years that ‘old Halloween feeling’ if you want to call it that had all but been forgotten. But then the other day I crawled under the covers and watched Victor Sjostrom’s ‘The Phantom Carriage’ and that Halloween Spirit I hadn’t felt in so long – came roaring back and it felt fucking great!
This film had been on my list for a while. I’m ashamed it took me so long to get around to it. ‘The Phantom Carriage’ is a timeless tale of the macabre. The kind of horror that seeps into your bones. It does a tremendous job of combining the visceral elements of your old-timey chiller with a deeper, more philosophical message. Age has only benefitted this film. Its eerie tone enhanced by the years. The seamless F/X work gives one the impression they are experiencing something truly supernatural and the minimalist score by Mattie Bye for the 1998 restoration really underscores the film’s foreboding tone. Each frame simmers with a sorrowful terror that is captured magically by cinematographer Max Wilen. This is a special cinematic experience and one can see why it was a personal favorite of Bergman’s and Kubrick lifted an entire sequence of it for ‘The Shining’.
‘The Phantom Carriage’ opens with a couple ne’er-do-wells drinking in a graveyard on New Year’s Eve and one of them tells an old tale – that the last person to die each year has to drive the Carriage of Death that goes from door to door collecting the souls of the departed for the following year. When one of the men is killed in a brawl he joins an old friend on the doomed carriage and must revisit the shitty life decisions he made and their consequences before being able to reconcile the ghosts of the past which haunt him in the present. The film unfolds with flashbacks within flashbacks but is shrewdly broken up into 5 parts as to not become convoluted or tiresome.
This Halloween if you’re looking for a truly atmospheric and unsettling film that will get under your skin, turn the lights off and watch ‘The Phantom Carriage’. Trust me.
Review by Damian K. Lahey