Plot: Edit (Astrid Holm) is bed ridden with tuberculosis and can sense the end is near, so she thinks about the past and what little time remains ahead. As she prepares to pass on, her one desire to see man from her past named David (Victor Sjostrom), a man she has thought about often. Her mother tries to convince David to visit Edit before she dies, but he refuses and instead, has a few drinks with friends in an eerie graveyard, talking about ghost stories and legends. One friend claims that if a man dies at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, he will be forced into ethereal service as the driver of the fabled haunted carriage. As David laughs at his friend’s story, a scuffle breaks out and he is killed in the chaos that follows. While David didn’t believe the story when he heard it, after he is killed, he encounters the phantom carriage first hand and realizes perhaps it is a legend for a reason.
Entertainment Value: This silent chiller has eerie atmosphere and striking visuals, not to mention the legacy as the movie that inspired the career of Ingmar Bergman, who was a rabid of The Phantom Carriage. The film’s influence doesn’t end there either, as you can see multiple scenes here that inspired later genre films, including a sequence that inspired the infamous Here’s Johnny scene from The Shining. I find The Phantom Carriage to be a beautiful film in both visuals and narrative, though it is rather dark in tone and can have a depressing presence, but this is a ghost story of sorts, not a romantic comedy, after all. I also think this is more natural than many silent movies, as the acting is understated and never exaggerated, as often happens. This allows the mood to remain somber and chilling, which by turn keeps the entire movie in that serious, eerie space it needs to be within. The Phantom Carriage does need that serious tone as well, given how dark most of the subject matter can be. The narrative is a dreamlike series of events that never feel or otherworldly, but stuck in some plane in between, but the story comes across quite well in the process.
The serious, sometimes unsettling narrative is bolstered by the visuals, which continue that sense of realism and eeriness. The tinted visuals really shine in The Phantom Carriage and add a kind of expressionistic, gothic vibe to the experience, down to the skilled use of shadows and contrast elements. The special effects are remarkable for the time and use some creative double exposure techniques, creating some ghostly, impressive visual flairs. These are of course antiquated effects, but still look good and don’t come across as hokey or campy, so again, the serious tone remains. The camera work is also part of the movie works so well, with great use of close ups that allow the actors to emote in natural, effective ways. As I said above, the cast is terrific here and doesn’t go wild with the pantomime, as many silent performers did, which helps keep things grounded. Astrid Holm is unforgettable as Edit, in a role that will stand as immortal in cinema, while director Victor Sjostrom is sharp on both sides of the camera and delivers a great lead performance as well. The cast also includes Tore Svennberg, Hilda Borgstrom, and Lisa Lundholm.