The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen 1921) DVD Review

“The Phantom Carriage” from Swedish director Victor Sjostrom was originally released way back in 1920 and has long been revered as a classic example of early supernatural cinema. Said to have been an early inspiration for Ingmar Bergman, the film is a haunting tale based around a legend that the last person to die on New Year’s Eve is fated to become the spectral driver of the titular cart, travelling the land for a year and collecting the souls of the newly departed. The film is here reissued by Tartan on DVD, with a specially recorded new soundtrack from KLT (otherwise known as Stephen O’Malley and Peter Rehberg).

The fact is, an undisputed and influential genre landmark though it may be, “The Phantom Carriage” as a film on its own is unlikely to be of interest to the average horror fan simply due to its having been made nearly 90 years ago and being silent, in black and white and Swedish. To an extent, this is understandable, as although the film does have some strong imagery and imaginative trick camera work it is undeniably archaic and very slow moving, particularly for viewers not schooled in or fond of cinema of this era. Similarly, although the story is interesting, and works well as a hoary old ghost tale, it has been told countless times and is likely to hold few surprises.

The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen 1921) DVD ReviewWhat turns things around, and transforms this new release into a supremely sinister viewing experience is the amazing KLT soundtrack, which fits perfectly, making the film incredibly atmospheric with a constant sense of ominous lurking doom. Far more than mere music, the score throbs and whispers, flowing eerily and menacingly throughout, complementing the images and bringing them to sinister life. No longer slow, the action takes on an almost hypnotic quality, and as such, it works as an experience or as a darkly avant-garde music project rather than a film in the traditional narrative sense, the viewer being pulled into a surreal landscape of nightmarish visions and creepy graveyards, held together by the ghostly driver and his never ending task of harvesting the souls of the dead.

Certainly, “The Phantom Carriage” is bitter, gloomy stuff, dealing with themes of guilt and regret, and again the soundtrack effectively mirrors this, subtly underscoring its dark heart. Although this may all sound strange, and is quite possibly very different from the original intentions of director Victor Sjostrom, it is very effective and gives the film a new lease of life which it might not otherwise have enjoyed. In fact, the only real mark against the film is that it is a little on the long side, and does require some patience on the part of the viewer – though those who persevere will certainly be rewarded.

The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen 1921) DVD ReviewWhilst in many cases cinematic puritans may grumble, often with good reason about new soundtracks added decades after the original release or other forms of tinkering with older works, obviously without any input from the original directors, in this case the change is definitely for the best, elevating a nearly 90 year old piece of work from what would have been little more than an archive piece or curiosity for ardent buffs to a genuinely unnerving piece of cinema. Of course, some viewers may still be put off by the age of “The Phantom Carriage”, which is a real shame, as they will be missing out on a wonderfully fusion of sound and imagery, which arguably achieves the original aim of the film, namely to chill, something which this new version certainly does.

Victor Sjöström (director) / Selma Lagerlöf (novel), Victor Sjöström (screenplay)
CAST: Victor Sjöström … David Holm
Hilda Borgström … Mrs. Holm
Tore Svennberg … Georges
Astrid Holm … Edit
Concordia Selander … Edit’s Mother
Lisa Lundholm … Maria

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The Phantom Carriage