Wednesday, November 30, 2011

#579: The Phantom Carriage

(Victor Sjöström, 1921)

Taken at face value, the villain in The Phantom Carriage is the drink. This was exploited when the film came to America (during Prohibition no less!) but it does not especially seem to be the intention of the film - alcohol is a means to an end both for the drunkard at the center of the story and the story itself, which seems to owe a great deal to A Christmas Carol.

The myth at the center of the film - the last person to die on New Year's Eve must take over as Death for the following year, with each day feeling like 100 years - has timeless appeal and could easily feature as the center of a modern horror film. But the film is actually more about a man being shown the light and changing his wicked ways. As a result, there wasn't much here I could become invested in on a narrative level.

Technically, however, The Phantom Carriage is an immensely impressive silent film. Sjöström uses multiple exposures to get his ghosts just right, and he pops back and forth in time in an impressive fashion. The horror-style scenes - of which there are few - are shot well, and if it hadn't been ruined for me, the clear influence the film had on The Shining would have been a pleasant surprise. While it's not one of my favorite silent films I've ever seen, The Phantom Carriage makes a solid case for early cinema as a major treasure trove of ideas and techniques that is essential to understanding not just early talkies but the modern film landscape. For this reason, it's a worthy successor to Nanook of the North as the oldest film in the Criterion Collection.

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