Peter Hoskin

On the trail of <em>The Phantom Carriage</em>

On the trail of <em>The Phantom Carriage</em>
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If you’re after a profound cinematic experience, then you could do far worse than to invest in Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage (1921), which got its first UK DVD release yesterday. 

The premise of this silent, Swedish film is ripped from a dark fairytale.  Anyone who dies at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve is consigned to spend the next year riding the titular carriage and collecting the souls of the departed.  Cue, then, the brutal death of David Holm – a consumptive drunk, played by Sjöström himself – at the  portentous hour.  The carriage duly arrives, but its current occupant insists on revisiting David's past life and its many evils.

It's bleak - but gripping - stuff.  We learn that David tried to infect his former-wife and their children with tuberculosis, and that he succeeded in doing so in the case of a Salvation Army nurse.  Eventually, the grim morality tale comes to a rounded conclusion; as Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946), but projected through a darker prism. 

Tartan has released The Phantom Carriage in two different versions.  The first is a single-disc edition, which showcases an atmospheric soundtrack by KTL.  Whilst a two-disc edition includes an alternative score and The Image Makers (2000) – a TV-movie by Ingmar Bergman, for whom The Phantom Carriage was a key influence. 

The Bergman film is well-worth the extra outlay.  Much as Shadow of the Vampire (2000) fictionally did for Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), The Image Makers dramatises the behind-the-scenes tensions of The Phantom Carriage.  It's a tale of art colliding with passion, and the perfect meeting-place for Bergman and Sjöström - one master and another.

Here's a clip of The Phantom Carriage (showing-off Sjöström’s double exposure effects) to whet your appetites: