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The Phantom Carriage
cast: Victor Sjöström, Hilda Borgstrom, Tore Svennberg, Astrid Holm, and Concordia Selander

director: Victor Sjöström

106 minutes (U) 1921
Tartan DVD Region 2 retail
[released 11 February]

RATING: 4/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
Superlative upon superlative has been rained upon Victor Sjöström's 1920 silent feature The Phantom Carriage (aka: Kö�rkarlen). Guess who's going to be the fly in the ointment? To cut to the quick on this, the cause against this film is simple, a slight story takes too long to be told, and though there may be standout images, there is nothing like 106 minutes worth of them. The Phantom Carriage could be told in 30 minutes maintaining the worthwhile visuals and jettisoning a lot of misery. I find it truly baffling that anyone can honestly entertain the complete movie and return satisfied.

The story takes as its premise the lore that the last person to die on a New Year's Eve is condemned to take the reins of death's carriage collecting the souls of all those to keel over during the following 12 months. Like a dark Santa Claus (not only in his collecting rather than delivering) time alters for him in order to allow for the expansiveness of his calling. The number of transportations to the hereafter is, after all, formidable. One year can feel like a thousand to the unfortunate who badly times his own uncoiling. The director himself takes on the role of David Holm, a violent alcoholic. His wife, Fru (Hilda Borgstrom), has fled with the children having had enough of the sparse existence, scored into an experience worse by her husband's nightly savagery.

The addled thug refuses to allow a woman get one up on him and becomes homeless in his search for her. His health too is in a downfall and he postpones the quest only when nursed to a state of comparatively better health by Sister Edit (Astrid Holm) of the Salvation Army who, though consumptive and having written off most of humanity previously, invests in him emotionally in the hope that he might respond as devotedly to her before she splutters her last. His own intentions towards her are confused, generally drink addled, the mist clearing only for some vague recall of that obsessive search for family, by this time the anger because of the desertion the only sensorial remainder impacting on him.

He is dismissive of Sister Edit yet remotely aware of his dependence on her. Tonight is New Year's Eve and Sister Edit is dying. She sends a colleague to bring him to her bedside but finding him cannot bore deep enough through the drunken fugue to persuade him of the importance that he attend to her. David would sooner swig in the New Year with his drunken compatriots under the clock in the town square.

A fight breaks out among the drunkards and a crack on the skull in the unfortunate moment brings the phantom carriage to meet David. The driver is Georges (Tore Svennberg), a man of letters, also formerly of this town who likewise had died in that ultimate fraction of a second the previous New Year's Eve. Okay, this is a fable, but if a filmmaker wants to get away with that level of coincidence he should house it in something more phantasmagorically entrancing. George educates David and then buddies up with him through his first clients and lo, one is Sister Edit, coughing her bloody last into the pillow, declaring her unconsolidated love. Who next?

Well, it's the wife, Fru, isn't it just, and how handy is that? Fru has been living under his very nose all of the time he has been in this town, and having discovered him locally, has decided she and the children can flee no longer and is preparing to poison herself and the boy and girl in their sleep to escape him with an undeniable finality. The whole grim episode finally reveals itself to be a dream, though one influenced by unknown true histories, so it seems, as he is able to locate his family living in the very hovel seen in his nightmare. It's A Wonderful Life, it isn't. That this melancholy morass concludes on a hopeful note is instead only a glum cop-out that only promises a prolongation of this terrible pall.

The destitution affects anyone that isn't sozzled. Even Edit in flashback is met in the attitude: "I am a consumptive. I cough in the face of people in the hope of finishing them off." It's a shocking and effective confession but little else delivers that electric a bolt. The film is otherwise a depressing rollout of the doldrums in a cancerous landscape of misery. The review disc features only one of two versions of the film, here sporting the new soundtrack by experimental outfit KTL (Stephen O'Malley and Peter Rehberg). The score is initially effective, a haunted jangle of tinnitus and interference.

The promisingly ominous support, however, eventually gives way only to a bored, slothernly accompaniment before the film ends. It is as if the drudgery and the hopelessness have ground the musicians down to a point where they too are pleading it to be over. It's clear that this film influenced Ingmar Bergman, and the spectral horse could have been an influence on Armando De Ossario's zombie equus. More likely it was Sjöström who was impressed by the skeletal chevaux of several of Georges Melies earlier dark fantasies. The sequence in which his escaping wife locks David in a room is of particular interest. As a furious David hacks the door with an axe, the scene bears a resemblance to that in which Jack Torrance attacks the door in The Shining.

The Phantom Carriage belabours its point and scenes are stultifyingly trundled out. Only a few of its scenes are genuinely arresting visually, such as the scene in which the carriage goes to meet a drowned man. Otherwise, the film is unimaginatively dressed and framed, and the story could be effectively told in a fraction of the time with all the most prized shots intact. Sometimes, it seems, that a silent movie's classic status is based primarily on the fact that it survives intact, and that to continue to exist is all the proof required of its worthiness. Let's appreciate its survival, but entertain a plea for more honest evaluations, please.
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