Monday Movie: Phantom
F.W. Murnau’s Phantom was a follow-up to his landmark Nosferatu and it represents a different kind of horror film altogether. Lorenz (Alfred Abel) is a directionless young man, a wannabe poet who lives with his worry-stricken mother. Then, one day, he is hit by a carriage while crossing the street.
Though physically unscathed, Lorenz becomes obsessed with finding the woman in the carriage. He caught only a glimpse of her but is convinced that he is in love. His newly erratic behavior, including assaulting his boss, causes him to lose his job and then a misunderstanding about his poems being published leads him to borrow a large sum of money from a relative.
So who is the phantom? The easiest answer is that it’s the woman in the carriage, the memory of whom plagues Lorenz. But his change in demeanor and his confusion about his poems implies that maybe there’s something else going on. Maybe the collision affected him in ways unseen and that phantom is really something clouding his brain.
Murnau supports this reading by using double exposures and other cinematic tricks to hint at Lorenz’s fractured mindscape and to turn the world into a frightening and untrustworthy place. There’s an oppressive, nauseous uncertainty to everything that follows the accident. The way inexplicable visions and terror creep into Lorenz’s mundane life feels positively Cronenbergian.
It’s been less than a decade since Phantom, long thought to be lost, was rediscovered and restored. It remains eclipsed by its more famous predecessor but, even if it’s not the milestone Nosferatu is, it demands to be watched.