31 Days of Halloween — Day 8: The Phantom Carriage (1921) — by Dr. Shock

The Phantom Carriage Artwork

Editor’s Note: Dave “Dr. Shock” Becker is a host on Horror Movie Podcast and the Land of the Creeps horror podcast. He is also the mastermind behind DVDInfatuation.com, a movie review blog where he is watching and posting one review every day until he reaches at least 2,500 movie reviews. Follow Doc on Twitter: @DVDinfatuation.

Ingmar Bergman, believed by many to be one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, was only a boy when he first saw The Phantom Carriage, a 1921 fantasy / horror movie directed by his idol, Victor Sjöström. Yet, despite his age, this picture would have a lasting impact on the future director.

“It completely overwhelmed me,” Bergman said when speaking of the film during a 1981 interview, adding that it left him “shaken to the core.” The themes of death and redemption, which figured prominently in Sjöström’s movie, would resonate with Bergman throughout his career, making their way into some of his best works, including The Virgin Spring, The Seventh Seal, and Cries and Whispers.

And while I don’t believe for a minute that The Phantom Carriage was, in all cases, his primary influence (Bergman’s strict religious upbringing, along with his well-documented obsession with death and the afterlife, held more sway over him and his movies than anything else), it’s easy to see why he considered this silent film “an all-encompassing emotional experience.”

It’s New Year’s Eve, and Salvation Army nurse Edit (Astrid Holm) is on her death bed. Realizing she has little time left, she asks to see David Holm, a drunk vagrant played by the film’s director, Victor Sjöström. Yet when told that the kindly nurse has called for him, David refuses to come, leading to a fight that ultimately costs him his life.

But a bad night is about to get much worse for the now-deceased David; because he died moments before the stroke of midnight, he must spend the next year as the driver of the Phantom Carriage, which collects the souls of the dead and transports them to the afterlife.

Before turning the reins over to him, the current driver, Georges (Tore Svennberg), shows David the error of his ways, including how his bad decisions have affected those closest to him.

While the story itself (i.e., the last man to die before year’s end takes on the role of Death for the next 365 days), is definitely interesting, it’s the manner in which Sjöström tells it that makes The Phantom Carriage such a powerful experience.

Relying on a series of flashbacks that detail how the lead character, David, went from a family man with a wife (Hilda Borgström) and two young children to a hopeless alcoholic, we see not only his decline, but the negative impact he’s had on family and friends. Years earlier, while in jail for drunken disobedience, David learned that his beloved brother (Einar Axelsson), who’d looked up to him ever since they were kids, accidentally killed a man in a drunken brawl, and as a result, was facing a long prison sentence.

Sjöström gives a compelling, heartfelt performance as the film’s lead (after hearing of his brother’s fate, David breaks down, a scene so poignant it will likely bring tears to your eyes), successfully conveying the character’s tender side, as well as his mean streak (in one flashback, David spends the night in a Salvation Army bed, and as he sleeps, Nurse Edit mends his dirty, germ-filled coat. The next morning, David, angry at all women because his wife just left him, tears out the patches that Edit had sewn into his jacket, making sure he does so while she’s watching).

In addition to its well-told story, The Phantom Carriage features some impressive special effects. In one early scene, where David (and the audience) first hears about the legend of the Phantom Carriage, Sjöström and his cameraman Julius Jaenzon utilize double exposures to make it look as if the carriage and its driver are transparent spirits, traveling unnoticed among the living (not bound by the elements, the carriage even rolls out into the middle of the sea to gather the soul of a young man who’s drowned).

Though based on the 1912 novel, Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness, by Nobel prize-winning author Selma Lagerlöf, The Phantom Carriage also has quite a bit in common with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (a spirit guides a sinner through key moments from his past, showing him the mistakes he’s made). And like that classic Holiday tale, Sjöström’s film is both an effective ghost story and a moving, dramatic portrait of a man whose life has gone very, very wrong.”

—Dr. Shock

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Dr. Shock also appears on this horror podcast: Land of the Creeps

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10 thoughts on “31 Days of Halloween — Day 8: The Phantom Carriage (1921) — by Dr. Shock

  1. 31 Days of Halloween day 7
    19. Green Inferno (****) – I was hoping one of the tribes people would have joined society and then murdered the blonde from the beginning too.

  2. (Contains massive spoilers)

    Day 8 – Sleepaway Camp (1983)

    When typing up reviews, I don’t purposely include spoilers nor do I go out of my way to avoid them. I simply use the reviews to talk about aspects of the movie that stood out to me the most. At times, that can mean skipping over entire aspects because talking about it would just feel forced. I bring this up because there’s times when I can type up an entire review without touching on any spoilers whatsoever, but then there’s others where my thoughts on the movie are so ingrained with major spoilers that typing up a review for the movie would be fairly dull for me unless I talk spoilers. This is one of those cases. If you have somehow not gotten around to seeing the original Sleepaway Camp, I urge you to skip this review and watch the movie without hearing any spoilers. Those fine people at Shout! Factory released one of their beautiful Blu-Rays dedicated to Sleepaway Camp in 2014. Buy it.

    Without question, the legacy of Sleepaway Camp rests on it’s surprising ending. Even though there’s clues throughout the entire movie, it’s still a shocking visual, partly because of the fact that they don’t just tell you, but show you in full graphic detail. The final image complete with the facial expression will stay with you. There’s been a good deal of twists and surprises in slasher history, April Fool’s Day for example, but I don’t believe there’s one that is so in your face as the Sleepaway Camp reveal.

    On paper, the film resembles some cheap knock-off of Friday the 13th, not unlike the rather fun The Burning. However, it plays out so differently from expectations that the summer camp backdrop doesn’t even seem as if it’s the important part in describing the type of slasher that it is. Sleepaway Camp is not a summer camp slasher. That’s not the main focus. Instead, it’s a sexually charge homoerotic violent slasher. Rather than say it’s comparable to Friday the 13th, I feel it’s closer in feel to A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. Both films have so many homosexual undertones and the main plot is this internal struggle between keeping your secret or letting out your Freddy, which in turn is the truth about your sex and sexuality. For Angela, rather than a straight up “I can’t admit that I’m gay”, it’s a “I can’t admit I’m truly a guy”. All of these years later, I think this movie stands out more because how society’s views on transsexualism has changed and has become more accepted. Elsewhere in the movie, we’re shown gay lovers with Angela’s dad and his boyfriend. A group of guys are shown in their tighty whities while not a single girl is with them. The final moments in the movie shows one dude’s butt while we also see Angela’s penis. Yet, we don’t see a single boob in the entire movie. Lastly, any time Angela is approached by a guy, it’s either one guy hitting on another guy, without noticing it, or in one case, an adult attempting to molest a underage guy without realizing it.

    Just as every horror icon has their own reasons for killing, as does Angela. This is a deeply disturbed individual and I felt a lot of sympathy towards her, especially at the end after the big reveal. At a very young age, she had to watch her father and twin sister die in a boating accident. In the immediate aftermath, she’s taken in by her aunt and forced to play the role of Angela. Really think about this. You’re dealing with your sister’s death, but you can’t properly mourn because everyone now identifies you as Angela. Even worse, your previous self as Peter is now dead. That’s enough to drive someone utterly mad. Based on my impressions of the early going with the aunt, I imagine this is one of the first times Angela has been able to go off in public. So here she is, incapable of coping with her family’s death, all of these identity issues, and now she’s finally interacting with other people, but so many of them treated her awful. It doesn’t take long before she snaps and ends up killing anyone who does her wrong. Sure, it’s an over the top and an unjust reason to kill someone just because they throw sand on you, but you also can’t fault her.

    While the kills aren’t very gory, there is a nice variety. Give credit to where it’s due, Angela isn’t afraid to try new things. The one kill in the movie that sticks out more than any other is the death of Judy. All throughout the movie, Judy came off like such a jerk that you’re waiting for her fantastic death scene. As it’s filmed by just showing the shadows, you don’t actually see it, but that makes it so much worse since it’s all in your imagination. What we see is Angela using Judy’s hot curling iron to attack Judy. However, when you pay attention to where the shadows are, it becomes clear there’s only one place where Angela is sticking the hot curling iron. It is one of the sickest and grimacing inducing kills in slasher history.

    Character wise, there’s a lot of oddballs. Even though her role is small, I LOVE the aunt. Played by Desiree Gould, Aunt Martha is a total nutjob. Forgetting about what she did to poor Angela, she has this unusual tendency of stopping after every sentence, putting a finger to her chin and pondering out loud. The head cook is made out to be a creepy pedophile from the very first scene we see with him. I find it particularly alarming that his coworkers hear him say so many questionable lines, but not once do they bring it up to anyone in charge. Anytime he talks, I feel gross and his “Accident” ends up being rather enjoyable. Speaking of which, there were some gigantic safety issues at the camp. Whether it was things going down in the kitchen or kids having a water balloon fight on the roof of a cabin, this is a camp that is just begging to be shut down for negligence towards safety. The owner of the camp is similar to the mayor in Jaws and he’s far too eager slap the hell out of the campers. One of the camp counselors, Meg, is this good looking girl, but she has this bizarre crush on the owner of the camp. He’s an old, ugly looking dude and I can’t understand why she would like him. It’s not even that he comes across as if he’s rich or anything. Then there’s Ricky. I hate Ricky. Ricky really got on my nerves by being incapable of talking to someone without using a cuss word every two seconds. I don’t have any qualms with cussing, but it gets old and it never stops. Part of my hatred for the character may also come from the unanswered question of whether or not Ricky knows about Angela’s secret. Throughout the entire movie, he’s there to protect Angela. After living together for probably close to a decade, it seems unlikely that he wouldn’t have realized the truth at some point. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether Ricky knew or not. I would still hate him even if he didn’t know. Lastly, you can’t talk about the characters without bringing up the cop who has a noticeably fake mustache. What’s the deal with the fake ‘stache?!

    Overall, Sleepaway Camp isn’t so much a good movie. Instead, it’s strengths come from being eccentric and a clear cult classic. It’s not for everyone, but since it is such a weird movie, it’s clearly a movie that appeals to a group of people as an 80’s classic. It’s not your everyday, run of the mill 80’s slasher. It’d make for an interesting double bill with A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge.

    I’d give it a 6.5 and it’s a solid rental unless you want to pick up that snazzy Shout! Factory release.

  3. Phantom Carriage is a great flick and well ahead of its time. It is well worth watching for fans of classic horror (Jay you will want to skip this one).


  4. 31 Days of Halloween day 8:
    20. Wyrmwood (***) – Maybe one of the dumbest zombie movies but very watchable. Zombies breath gas, but only in the daytime.
    21. The Nightmare (***) – Great production values and very accurate to what used to happen to me as a kid. As a documentary it would have been nice if they had talked to some scientists or doctors who had some idea about what was actually going on. Recently found out that the painting The Nightmare is on permanent display at the Detroit Institute of Arts which is 20 minutes from my house. I’ll be heading there very soon.

  5. Day 8: The Seasoning House
    This movie starts off like a drama about girls being prostituted to the military in the Balkans, 1996. I almost turned it off because it was pretty depressing, much more depressing than scary. I saw it through to the end where there is some good action. Overall, this is barely a horror movie that is trying to be horror and I found it hard to watch.

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