Halloween Every Day (for a Month)
By Andrew Neil Cole
Day 23: Korkarlen (The Phantom Carriage) (1921).
It’s high time that this project include a movie from the silent era. Though I am an extravagant admirer of many of the now-infamous German Expressionist films, such as Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, I decided to use this platform to write about one of my favorite silent films of all time, the Swedish horror/drama Korkarlen (or The Phantom Carriage).
It’s easy to say that any decent silent film was ahead of its time; in fact, it’s kind of a cheap observation, since it’s ultimately a matter of opinion and therefore nearly impossible to disprove. That being said, The Phantom Carriage is a silent film that was way ahead of its time. For starters, the way in which the movie manipulates time is impressive, even by today’s standards. The story (which some interpret as a metaphor for the ravages of tuberculosis) unfolds through a series of flashbacks and flashbacks inside of flashbacks. There are even moments in which one character will begin telling a story in which a character within the story tells another story, setting up not only flashbacks within flashbacks but stories within stories inside of flashbacks (or something along those lines). All of this may prove confusing to modern film viewers who have little or no practice with active film viewing, since so much of modern cinema is dialogue driven and virtually everything is spelled out for you. Furthermore, modern cinema is routinely engineered to accommodate short attention spans. Consider how often characters in modern movies actually say what they’re thinking when what they’re thinking is readily evident: “You’re breaking my heart!” The Phantom Carriage is a different kind of viewing experience. The movie jumps around in time so often that even a quick trip to the fridge could leave you utterly confounded and confused.
Here’s the story in broad strokes: Each year on New Year’s Eve, the last person to die before the clock strikes midnight must spend the next full year driving Death’s carriage and collecting souls. Pretty cool, right? Regrettably, the film too often detours away from this timelessly eerie horror premise to effectuate a series of oversimplified moral judgments; it’s is one of those movies that deals in absolutes a little too completely. People are either good or bad, period. It’s a movie that suggests a few sips of alcohol will lead to your ruin. Its sexual politics are composed entirely of old-world thinking, e.g.: every woman needs a man; women fall instantly in love upon meeting a decent man, etc … This philosophical naiveté ends up freighting most of the relationships in the film with a preponderant dearth of authenticity.
Despite the film’s shortcomings, the basic idea of a recently deceased person being forced to work for Death is actualized with a wonderfully creepy atmosphere and surprisingly effective special effects. There is a scene in which a man dies in the ocean. To collect his soul, the ghostly carriage methodically rolls out onto the water, unstoppable as it pushes through the churning waves. Then, while the carriage sits atop the water, a cloaked-and-hooded figure descends the depths and, scythe in hand, trolls along the murky seafloor, amid swaths of hypnotically undulating seaweeds, in pursuit of the fresh soul in need of reaping. It’s a great scene in a film filled with outstanding imagery. Again, the story doesn’t live up to the potential presented by the core concept, but for serious fans of cinema The Phantom Carriage stands as an example of innovative film craft in a time when filmmakers had very limited technology at their disposal. It is also a towering achievement in set design, mise-en-scene, and visual storytelling that has made a lasting impact on the world of filmmaking; in fact, the film’s influence can clearly be seen in numerous landmark films, most notably Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.