Swedish cinema is sometimes considered synonymous with the films of Ingmar Bergman, but even a genius must have his influences. In the beginning, there was Victor Sjöström‘s eerie landmark silent film The Phantom Carriage, which elevated early horror to new heights of surrealistic complexity. Bergman’s ineffable use of water effects—as in Through a Glass Darkly—owes a debt to Phantom, as does the wistful flashback style in Wild Strawberries (a film in which an aging Sjöström would be the central protagonist). And the grim reaper would tear my chest open with his scythe if I were to forget that the chess-playing Death in The Seventh Seal had its roots in the carriage-driving gatherer of souls from Phantom.
Its metaphysical story of a man’s redemption through the instruction of a spirit interestingly bears a close resemblance to Charles Dickens‘s yuletide tale A Christmas Carol. The central character in Phantom, David Holm (played by Sjöström himself), albeit is not a miser, but an alcoholic profligate, and is visited not by three spirits but by just one, his drinking buddy Georges (Tore Svennberg). But Holm, like Scrooge, achieves his spiritual salvation by returning kindnesses to his fellow man—or, in this case, woman, a Salvation Army worker named Edit (Astrid Holm).
The story begins by her bedside as she is dying of tuberculosis, a disease she ironically contracted from David Holm years earlier while mending his germ-ridden coat. A tidy, quasi-Dickensian plot connects the two characters, with the saintly Edit also trying to patch up David’s ailing marriage to Anna Holm (Hilda Borgström). Now, in the hour of her death, she wants to see David one last time so that her soul can rest assured that he has turned his life around.
The film’s use of time is remarkable, containing flashbacks within flashbacks. The unsettling mood is established within a graveyard (hey, it was nothing new even then but it worked) as David recounts to his fellow derelicts how Georges took the reins of the eponymous vehicle by being the last soul to die before midnight, a fate that also befalls David. Georges thus becomes the bridge between the world of the dead and the world of the living in that he uses a second flashback to recount the downward spiral in David’s life that estranged him from his wife. Like Marley’s ghost before him, Georges becomes in death that truest of friends who teaches via confession of his own mistakes. Lifting the veil of his cloak, Georges puts a human face on a tale that Poe might have been proud to have written.
Along the way, however, the ghoulish translucency of the carriage and its shadowy helmsman, rendered through a revolutionary use of double exposure, shows us an age when special effects were creepy and unnerving without being gory or gaudy. Though it doesn’t have the disturbing set designs or well-honed structure of its similarly ground-breaking predecessor The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the less heralded Phantom should be on the to-watch lists of all silent film lovers or those with a taste for the macabre. Hop in, my friends, and cross over to the other side.
Joe’s Grade: A