The Phantom Carriage

10/26/2019 08:10

Film: The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen)

Year: 1921

Director: Victor Sjöström

Writer: Victor Sjöström

Starring: Victor Sjöström, Hilda Borgström and Tore Svennberg



This was a silent film that I never actually heard of until I got into listening to podcasts. One of the hosts I believe saw this in class and then recommended it the other two guys on the show. It is actually in their hall of fame, so when I was doing a horror movie challenge they put forth, I figured that I would check this out for that category. I didn’t know a lot about it, aside from that it was silent and not from the United States. I’m also giving it a rewatch as part of my Centennial Club on Journey with a Cinephile: A Horror Movie Podcast. The synopsis is on New Year’s Eve, the driver of a ghostly carriage forces a drunken man to reflect on his selfish, wasted life.

We start this in the room of a nun who works with the Salvation Army. She is dying of consumption on New Year’s Eve. Her name is Edit (Astrid Holm) and she asks her mother (Concordia Selander) as well as another nun Maria (Lisa Lundholm) to get someone named David Holm to visit her before she passes. They go out to do so, but they can’t find him anywhere.

Gustafsson (Tor Weijden) also joins the search and finds him drunk in a cemetery. David (Victor Sjöström) refuses to come with him. He’s there with two friends and they getting sauced up. A story is told about a guy they knew named Georges (Tore Svennberg). He is supposed to be the smartest guy they knew, but he was terrified of a superstition that if you’re the last person to die before the New Year, you become the driver of the phantom carriage. This makes the driver a disciple of Death and they must collect the souls of the dead for one year. It feels like an eternity as one day feels like 100 years.

David is hit in the head with a wine bottle and when he looks up, Georges arrives in the phantom carriage. David is informed that he will be the driver for the next year. He tries to plead to be taken to a hospital and he doesn’t want to die. Georges states if he appears, it is too late. He then shows him the events of his life and why he deserves to be the next driver. We see how he ruined the life of his wife Mrs. Holm (Hilda Borgström), their children, his brother (Einar Axelsson) as well as Edit. He pleads for his wife and to stop the horrifying act that could completely alter their lives for the worst.

Now I wanted to go a little vague with this recap, even though I’m covering a film that is now 100 years old this year. There isn’t actually a lot to the story to be honest, but it is more about showing us the events that led up to this moment. It gave me a lot of vibes of A Christmas Carol, but instead of this man being visited by 3 ghosts, he sees what the driver of the phantom carriage does and how David wasted his life. This is actually based off a novel written by Selma Lagerlöf so I’d be intrigued to see how both of these written works are similar as well as how much this movie follows it.

To get a bit more into this, the reason I feel this is similar to A Christmas Carol is that we have an extremely bitter man in the form of David. He is a heavy drinker, he gets his brother into trouble by corrupting him to drink and really doesn’t do anything to help him. He loses his family due to how he acts, but when his wife leaves while he is locked up for being drunk, he blames them. He really doesn’t take any responsibility for his actions. This makes him worse than Ebenezer Scrooge to me. He also is spreading consumption which is deplorable as well.

The opposite of him would be the character of Edit. She is the nun working for the Salvation Army. She made a statement that the New Year’s Eve that David comes to stay at the place they’ve just open, she hopes that God changes his life around that year. She is dying of consumption that was spread to her from David and it is interesting that the opening scene of her, we think she is calling out to is a good person. No matter what he does to her, she tries to change his ways. He is stubborn though and just wants to hate the world around him. It is sad to see how bitter he is and it is all his fault.

What I really want to know more about is this lore of the phantom carriage. It is an interesting concept and I like this as being a punishment. I’m not sure if Georges deserves it, as we never really get to see his back-story aside from he is taking blame for setting David down the path he is on now. It is a great way to punish people like him and David for sure. It is also cool to see how they use it in the movie, having Georges pick up a man’s soul who committed suicide as well as someone who has drown underwater. I just want to know if this is something that people from Sweden really believe in or not.

I want to shift to the acting, which surprises me that this one is different from most silent films. We don’t get a lot of overacting, which is shocking. Sjöström, who is also the writer/director, is so good as David. He is such a garbage human being and he got a reaction out of me. That is what I look for in acting performances. Borgström is good and I feel bad for her for what she put up with. Svennberg is solid as the driver of the phantom carriage. I really like Holm because she has a good heart and really embodies being a good Christian. She warms my heart for how good she is for someone who doesn’t deserve it. The rest of the cast I think is fine and rounds out the film for what is needed.

Something that I was really impressed by was the effects. They’re basic which I can’t blame this movie since it came in the 20’s. They do a cool effect though where I’m sure they overlaid two films over each over to give a ghost effect. This is what they do to show for spirits as well as the phantom carriage. The film is shot very stationary, but we did get camera movement that I noticed. They also use the iris effect as well.

The last thing to cover is the soundtrack. Much like with most silent films, I’m not sure if this was intended. The soundtrack that was paired with the version I watched was amazing aside from just one scene. I’m not going to lie, it made me feel anxious and really did a great job of helping to build tension which is all I can ask for.

Now with that said, this was a film that I heard was good and definitely lived up to the expectations. I really like the idea of this lore of the phantom carriage, in that I really want to look into more of this. I thought it is an interesting concept that David is a horrible person and Edit really wants to save his soul before it is too late. The acting is good across the board, which is interesting as we don’t get the normal overacting you see from the era. The only issue I have here was with the ending. I didn’t necessarily need to see the horrific thing that could happen, but it was too happy for me. The soundtrack really helps to build the tension and I thought it was great. The effects are actually good, for the era and for even some films after it if I’m honest. I felt this was a really good movie and would recommend it if you enjoy silent films.


My Rating: 9.5 out of 10