Home Video Hovel: The Phantom Carriage
The last person to die on New Year’s Eve before the clock strikes twelve is doomed to take the reins of Death’s chariot and work tirelessly collecting fresh souls for the next year.
So begins The Criterion Collection’s description of The Phantom Carriage, which they’ve recently released on Blu-Ray and DVD. Sounds pretty awesome, right? And it is. What I wasn’t expecting was just how little the supernatural element would factor in. Instead, we get a different kind of horror film altogether, one in which the protagonist is the monster and the terror comes not from without, but from how we condemn ourselves.
By 1921, Victor Sjöström had already made dozens of films, sometimes casting himself in a lead role. Here, he plays David Holm, who abandons his family in favor of drink and frivolity, only to be faced with the horror he’s wrought at the moment of his death. Sjöström tells this story in a fairly complex manner, involving flashbacks-within-stories-within-flashbacks, making any quick synopsis nearly impossible while still telling a fairly engaging story. Putting a man at the moment of his death provides a natural avenue for flashback storytelling, adding urgency and curiosity to elements that would otherwise be a trifle boring, and all the while layering on more atmosphere than you or anyone else could ask for.
The Phantom Carriage is a color-tinted silent film, using a color palette that is totally expected (amber for lit interiors, blue for night outdoors, etc.) but also works beyond merely identifying location. It also makes it much easier to tell what time period he’s playing with, and the supernatural scenes are so much more chilling in different shades. Sjöström directs the hell out of it, highlighting the intricacies of performance with very few close-ups, and blocking his scenes quite dynamically.
If you haven’t seen it before, you could hardly ask for better than Criterion’s new release. The film looks amazing on Blu-Ray, naturally accounting for the fact that it’s 90 years old. The print contains a lot of damage (including a missing frame here and there), and can be pretty heavy on the grain at times, but the image is very sharp, the contrast looks amazing (deep shades of black against very pure ambers are especially striking), and as I often say, most importantly it looks like an honest-to-God film print. I love watching silent films on Blu-Ray, because (obviously) it really is all about the image, and The Phantom Carriage has many, many images worth soaking in.
It being a silent film, there obviously isn’t a sound track to restore, but the scores provided sound great. I’d recommend Matti Bye’s score first, because it’s become sort of the default since it was composed in 1998, and also because it just plain kicks ass. It’s daring in some of its choices without abandoning a certain musical style inherent to the silent era, and there are a few cues in particular that will be forever tied to my memory of the film. And coming from someone with an awful memory for scores, that might say something.
The other option is by the experimental duo KTL. Like a lot of experimental scores for silents, theirs is more an interesting take on the film than working with the film on its own terms. They present a singular vision of the film, all right, but that results in a lot of low hums and ominous sounds, even when the mood onscreen is far more jaunty. If you’re into that sort of thing, by all means, Criterion has provided it, but I’d hardly consider it a definitive take.
The special features are a little frustrating. We get an excerpt from the documentary Victory Sjöström: A Portrait, in which Ingmar Bergman talks about his memory of seeing The Phantom Carriage as a child, Sjöström’s impact on his life and work, and their eventual collaborations (including, most notably, Wild Strawberries). Why Criterion didn’t include the entire documentary is beyond me, but I always love hearing great directors talk about the films that inspire them, and as a massive Bergman fan, I’ll frankly take any interview with the man I can get.
Less satisfying is Peter Cowie’s visual essay, The Bergman Connection, in which he analyzes how The Phantom Carriage influenced Ingmar Bergman’s work. Not only is it entirely besides the point in analyzing a film of which Bergman had no part, but Cowie often strains to make connections, highlighting aspects that are as old as storytelling itself (or at least older than The Phantom Carriage) and only briefly touching on what makes these elements so valuable. Cowie’s also a totally uninspiring speaker, almost a parody of what all Bergman fans are like.
Better, but far from perfect, is is Casper Tybjerg’s commentary. Tybjerg’s obviously done his research, and has written a very good, comprehensive analysis of the film, effortlessly weaving biography and analysis, but like Cowie, seems to draw no joy from his work. And I know I should probably be above such things, and shouldn’t look to the commentary track of a silent Swedish film for my entertainment, but teaching people a passion for important works of classic cinema is just as important as teaching them why they’re worth being passionate about, and the two are very easily mixed. Worth a listen if you’re really into the film or Sjöström, but it won’t add a lot if you’re not already a believer.
Finally, we get four minutes of film documenting the construction of Råsunda Studios, where The Phantom Carriage was shot. It’s silent, with a score, and isn’t terribly informative, but hey, why not include it, I say.
As always, Criterion has provided a booklet, this time with an essay by screenwriter and filmmaker Paul Mayersberg. It’s very good, once again mixing biography with analysis in a compelling way. Well worth a read (and available on Criterion’s website, as are most of the essays they commission).
On the whole, I recommend this highly as a rental at the very least. I really enjoyed the film, if for very different reasons than those I was expecting. The special features are pretty hit-or-miss; a lot of information, but just make sure you’ve had plenty of caffeine. But man, silent films on Blu-Ray. You really can’t ask for better in the visual department, am I right?