Phantom Carriage, The
Thereís still a quality to the silent film thatís palpable today. Unlike cinema now, where the image is so crisp (or even in the third dimension) it could pass for reality, the silent film often has an otherworldly quality. The light flickers, the frame skips and the image is often basked in a white glow. Itís no surprise some of the first films, like Thomas Edisonís Frankenstein, were so popular Ė the medium itself projected a ghostly, horrific quality at the best of times. One of the enduring classics of the silent era, at least in Sweden, is Victor Sjostromís 1921 morality tale, The Phantom Carriage. Its elaborate special effects that enabled characters to display a semi-transparent quality, helped birth the very art of cinematography and visual effects. Whatís more, it was the one film that inspired Ingmar Bergman to make movies, and by his death Bergman was reported to have watched the film well over 100 times. Iíll watch it once and let you know if this carriage is worth the ride.
Itís New Yearís Eve, and a young woman on her death bed cries out in the night for one man: David Holm (the director Victor Sjostrom). Not interested in any petty sentimentality, Holm instead does what he does best, getting drunk with his old drinking buddies. Together they talk of the legend of the phantom carriage. As it goes, the last person to die before the new year is destined to take over deathís carriage, meeting and retrieving the souls of all those who die the year following. Edit (Astrid Holm), whoís last dying wish is to speak to David, seems poised for that position. When David refuses his friendsí suggestions to pay his respects to Editís final wish, a drunken fight breaks out and it is David who instead dies a few strikes before midnight. It is then, on the cold, blue tinted streets, he is visited by death, perched atop his carriage carried along by two skeletal horses. Death is not so happy with David Holm.
David has lived a shameful life. Repeatedly choosing the pub over his family, David drove out his wife and two children, who up and ran away, leaving him furious and desperate. His brother was also led astray by David, battling the bottle and in the process finding himself incarcerated for murder. David never took good care of himself, either, acquiring parasites and diseases, tuberculosis among them. It was this tuberculosis that infected Edit when she stayed up all night mending his clothing at the Salvation Army station where she worked. There is much for David to redeem, so instead of taking his soul, the current reaper, George, an old friend of Davidís, instead takes him on a tragic trip through his life, past and present, to show the plague he has brought upon those who loved him.
It is in this harrowing journey of death that David confronts his sins and vows to make good this terrible life left behind. Heís brought to his wife, who, unable to live without David decides to take her and the childrenís lives. David pleads for one last chance at flesh, one last chance at redemption. The life he desecrated is out of his hands now, controlled instead by the apparition who rides silently through the night. Will he grant David one last chance at life, or has Davidís journey come to an end?
Much has been made about The Phantom Carriageís influence on Ingmar Bergman Ė how he later cast Sjostrom in his most famous role as a man similarly looking back over a regretful existence in Wild Strawberries, or how he made death similarly into a cloaked, scythed man of bargain and sacrifice in The Seventh Seal. Thereís also the filmís demonstrable air of guilt and manís search for penance in the face of a godless existence that so defined Bergman works like The Silence or The Virgin Spring. To reduce the film as merely a prelude to Bergman is to slight itís important place in film history and its own strengths as a piece of art rather than a piece of history.
The Phantom Carriage has surprising sophistication in its construction, and Iím not just talking about the still impressive in-camera multiple exposure effects. The film makes a calculated, almost seamless use of overlapping action and when itís not cutting it seems to be reinventing the two shot as something more than just your usual master shot. So often in early motion pictures the wide two shot is a shot chosen more out of necessity rather than for stylistic or emotional purpose. Here though, Sjostromís camera lingers long on the two shots between David and his wife, or Edit, or anyone else he affected in the film. These shots in a way cage him with his past, refusing to separate the two characters and instead forcing them to confront their histories in long, unedited reality. You can virtually see the notion of the arthouse long take co-opted in the sixties by Antonioni, Bergman, Tarkovsky, et al. birthed by Sjostromís probing and unforgiving long shots. Even when youíd think the film shot cut to a title card, when one actor finishes speaking, the camera instead stays on them as the two react to each other and even talk some more. The words are less important than the silences, the faces and reactions communicating much more than any text ever could.
Thereís a heartbreaking moment after David rips apart the jacket that Edit spent the night sewing, where we see Editís face so remiss at the thought of being useless or unappreciated thatís as tragic as anything sound or text could communicate. From the Hitchcock to King Kong, American cinema seemed to have reduced women to this screaming, objectified heroine whoís concerns were about being saved or loved. Weíre still seeing American cinema trying to reel itself in from this clichťd and reductive conception of women in film. In The Phantom Carriage, though, weíre brought to light just how powerful even the smallest of tragedy can be to a woman or more generally a character. She didnít have to scream or flail in sorrow, itís that internal drama conveyed in her face that says anything. The Europeans have always been a step ahead when it came to dealing with real, personal, domestic drama (LíAvventura, Mamma Roma, Open City, Nights of Cabiria) and with a movie like The Phantom Carriage such a monumental film oversees, itís easy to see how theyíve progressed so far ahead in the tradition of a womanís cinema.
Of course, there is more to The Phantom Carriage than just haughty, arty drama. The ghostly effects truly do make for some horrific imagery, particularly the emaciated, boney horses and the shadowed face of the bringer of death. Itís almost surreal seeing these antiquated film techniques like the iris-in transitions or the tinted frames amidst such still sophisticated special effects. The Phantom Carriage, like LíInferno before it, really set the bar for horror visuals in contemporary cinema. Of course Iíd be remiss if I didnít mention another significant contribution The Phantom Carriage made to the iconic images of the genre. Jack Nicholsonís famous axe through the door attack in The Shining is born here, and while the motivations of the characters are different, that visceral, feral directness still comes through in much the same manner. Itís evident this movie influenced a whole hell of a lot more than just Bergman.
For all its inspirations and triumphs, it must be said that The Phantom Carriage did its own fair share of lifting, too. That axe scene was similarly done a couple years before in D.W. Griffithís Broken Blossoms in 1919, and more importantly, the film owes a great deal to the formula of Charles Dickensí A Christmas Carol. In todayís age the story certainly appears formulaic and predictable, and thatís aggravated by the inevitably slower pace of silent cinema. Still, Victor Sjostrom, both as an actor on screen and director behind it, shows that itís not necessarily the material thatís important but how itís handled. The Phantom Carriage is a rich and unique piece of drama, horror, fable, whatever you want to call it, and one more than worthy of the praise it continues to reap today.
Dropped frames, scratches, grain and all the imperfections that come with the multiple exposures the film had to endure to create its special effects mean that The Phantom Carriage is certainly a film that looks its age, but Criterion had preserved all these wrinkles, like rings on a tree, in fine fashion. The 1080 image is remarkably crisp for the bulk of the picture. The multiple tints used in the film to suggest both different temperatures (from the cold, blue moonlight to the warm, orange lantern light inside) and different timeframes as the narrative shifts from past and present were painstakingly restored for this release from multiple incomplete source elements to make one fine definitive transfer. Itís tough to say whether a film of this age and wear is now the best itís ever looked, but Iíd wager to guess it is, especially for those who embrace the wear and tear of old cinema as its own form of art itself.
Now this is interesting. Criterion has included two different soundtracks for the film. One is more traditional, in the piano and string accompaniment weíre most used to when it comes to silent films. The second, by experimental duo KTL is much more ambient, industrial and atmospheric in the more contemporary horror tradition of films like Eraserhead. Switching between the two, they both really alter the tone and sometimes meaning of whatís happening on screen. Matti Byeís orchestral piece enunciates all the filmís traditional dramatic trappings, expressing the highs and lows of emotion in variations of tempo and intonation. If youíre watching the film as an Important Film in the strict Criterion tradition, thatís certainly the way to go. If youíre watching it as a horror fan, though, KTLís track really gives the film a grimy, seething underbelly of despair. With their harsh, echoing sounds behind it, Davidís scenes with tuberculosis feel as if the disease is spreading as we watch. Itís quite amazing, really, the way the two tracks really affect the way we interpret whatís happening on screen. When I watched for the first time I kind of flicked between both, finding the KTL track best for the moments with the carriage and some of the more depressing flashbacks, while Byeís track worked best for the domestic drama and the finale. Still, both are quite good, and they come through with significant range in 3.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. Both of them new tracks, they are free from any of the print damage or aging visible in the video transfer, but still feel fitting or of the time stylistically.
Despite being the oldest film in the Criterion family, The Phantom Carriage still has a number of worthwhile supplements, both old and new. In addition to the two diverse scores selectable for the film, thereís also a third audio track dedicated to a commentary by film historian Casper Tybjerg. As horror fans we seem to get used to commentaries where the filmmakers either laugh along with the shotcomings of a film or at least speak with the assumption that the film in question is not of high art, so itís refreshing when you see a speaker do the opposite. Tybjerg treats the commentary very seriously and really delves deep into the filmís thematic construction, its ties to the original 1912 novel, itís history and the impact of many of the artistic choices by Sjostrom and his crew. Itís a calculated track and not exactly jovial, but itís wrought with information and one that really brings to light all the important things of this dark little film.
On the flipside, Criterionís regular contributor Peter Cowieís 18-minute visual essay on the film, The Bergman Connection, is kind of a slight and in a way almost demeaning analysis of the film. It reduces the film to something that would go on to influence Bergman rather than a piece that stands more than capably on its own, and many of the connections Cowie presents through the use of images or clips from Carriage and many of Bergmanís films are rather trite. Itís often just comparing shots or broad themes (like death, as if this film dealing with it would be the way Bergman discovered it as a worthwhile narrative subject) and ends up reducing the film to far less than the sum of its parts. Itís of course well put together and researched, but with this supplement and the whole way this release has been marketed, it makes the film seem less important as a film of its own worth than it is a building block for the career of Criterionís poster boy, Ingmar Bergman. Iíve never enjoyed how the films that Quentin Tarantino has pillaged are mostly seen today in reference to what Tarantino did with those works, and while not as bad, this still presents a potentially destructive way of looking at history.
Proving that Bergmanís love really is the raison díetre for this being a Criterion release, weíre also presented with a 1981 interview with Ingmar Bergman from the documentary Victor Sjostrom: A Portrait. Running just over 15 minutes, it features Bergman discussing the filmís impact on him, how he first met Sjostrom, his style as an actor and as a director and then finally how his experience was working with him in Wild Strawberries. Bergman has some interesting stories about the great figure of early cinema, but I feel there is so much more to the man than whatís been conveyed here. Iíd have much rather have seen the entire documentary itself, since again the focus is more on the Bergman connection rather than Sjostrom, a man with a lengthy career that not many of us know much about.
Finally, weíre left with a vintage silent reel of the construction of Rasunda studio, a stage built by Sjostrom and others specifically for The Phantom Carriage, the first production to use it. We see it first as a plot of dirt, view clips of its construction and ultimately its unveiling. Itís a short and sweet five minute look at an often overlooked piece of history Ė we always celebrate the films, but the places where theyíre made often have just as magical a quality themselves.
A quality booklet that provides a little more welcome history about Sjostromís early life rounds off this release.
Yeah, it inspired Bergman, Kubrick, and mostly all of the arthouse cinema we know from the formative eras of cinema, but The Phantom Carriage still has a lot make it more than stand on its own today. The ghostly effects still haunt today, while some of its seedy subject matter still produces some raw and affecting emotion. Criterion has done a characteristically courteous restoration, with sharp visuals of a tattered, but in a way personable, print, and two vastly different, but both engaging, scores. The extras unfortunately go a little too Bergman heavy, but the commentary especially provides a great retrospective of the film and Victor Sjostrom, the man who made it and in the process laid the grammar for film, be it horror or drama, for years to come.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
I enjoyed this one when I saw it a few years ago - obviously it looks a lot better here than the pretty cruddy version I saw. I agree, really, who wouldn't, that Bergman was heavily influenced by Carriage, but I think seeing Bergman perfect similar themes in Winter Light, Seventh Seal, Through a Glass Darkly, Wild Strawberries and others hindered my enjoyment of The Phantom Carriage a bit, as unfair as it sounds. I had the same feeling when I saw Animal House for the first time because I'd really seen it before because everything xeroxed it. I will say that The Phantom Carriage easily edges Hour of the Wolf.
In the battle of movies with boney horses, I'll take Murnau's Faust over the Carriage, Blind Dead and the rest. Now there's a HorrorDVDs poll for the ages.
classy use of screen captures there, rhett old boy. ;p
Review lists the video as 1080p; it's 1080i and this is reportedly to accommodate the frame rate. (Details on that would have to be explain by someone else as I have no idea. Can't find much info on it either.)
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