The Best Horror Movie of 1921: The Phantom Carriage

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The Best Horror Movie of 1921: <i>The Phantom Carriage</i>

This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.

The Year

The early 1920s, and really the entire decade by extension, until the talkie revolution, have a tendency to feature one or two significant horror films per year. In the beginning of the decade these are largely international films, the U.S. film industry having not quite caught up yet to the experimentation that was happening overseas. In 1921, that included early films from the likes of Fritz Lang (The Three Lights) and F.W. Murnau (The Haunted Castle), both of whom will appear prominently in later entries of this series.

These years are also plagued, however, by the existence of significant films that are now lost to time. Among them in 1921 is the Hungarian-produced Dracula’s Death, which preceded Nosferatu by a year in adapting—apparently very loosely—the characters of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The film is theorized to be lost, although a print may apparently still exist in Hungarian archives. Regardless, it likely hasn’t been screened since 1923.

1921 was also home, oddly enough, to one of the earliest adaptations of Frankenstein in Italy, under the title Il mostro di Frankenstein. This adaptation was preceded only by the more famous Thomas Edison-produced, 12-minute version of Frankenstein from 1910.

1921 Honorable Mentions: The Haunted Castle, The Three Lights, Dracula’s Death (lost film)

The Film: The Phantom Carriage

Director: Victor Sjöström

In the canon of “man on his deathbed looks back on how his life ended up in such a ruinous state” films, few approach the iconic nature of The Phantom Carriage, one of the best known works in the history of Swedish cinema. It’s a masterpiece of composition and a breakthrough in early practical effects (especially double exposures to simulate ghostly transparency) within the horror genre, although the film functions just as much as a morality playlet and over-the-top melodrama. Regardless of classification, though, its imagery has echoed and been evoked through popular cinema around the world for almost a century.

The Phantom Carriage is the story of unrepentant drunk and consumptive David Holm, who stands proudly as one of the more determinedly unsympathetic “protagonists” in film history. Gathering all his drinking buddies around him in a graveyard on New Year’s Eve, he relates a folk tale of how the last soul to die in any given year is supposedly cursed to drive the carriage of the damned for the next 365 days. This is of course exactly what happens to David, who learns he’ll have to take over for his friend Georges, who managed to die the previous New Year’s Eve … but not before Georges takes David on an interdimensional journey through time and space, so David can see all the lives his obstinate drunkenness and misanthropy have destroyed along the way.

If that sounds a bit like A Christmas Carol, except with The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come being promoted to Scrooge’s sole tour guide, then you’d be correct, except for the positively bleak tone throughout. The film trades in the absolute caddishness of the bitterly selfish, “modern man” symbolized by David, who mocks others for their attempts to make the world a better place and physically rejects acts of kindness meant to help him crawl out of the gutter. Watching a kindly Salvation Army worker sew new patches into David’s torn coat, only for him to rip them out rather than accept a bit of human kindness is a devastating sight, which can’t help but make the viewer consider the implications of “those who can’t be saved.”

Viewing The Phantom Carriage, film geeks in the audience will be struck by certain scenes or shots that seem like clear inspirations for depictions of death and the afterlife in the decades that followed. The carriage itself cresting a hill is notably evocative of a similar shot in director Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, that of the danse macabre filmed from a distance. And when David clutches an axe, chopping down a door in a frenzy while his wife and children cower on the other side, comparison to Kubrick’s The Shining is unavoidable. The scene loses none of its power without being able to hear the dull thud of axe on wood.

Modern restorations of The Phantom Carriage, such as the one featured by the Criterion Collection, have made the film more accessible (and visually crisp) than ever, although it can also be seen in its entirety (in less than perfect quality) by simply browsing YouTube. This is one case, however, when a traditional viewing, preferably with a bit of mood lighting, will go a long way in delivering the intended atmosphere. Your friends probably won’t appreciate you throwing it on at a New Year’s Eve party, but you’re welcome to try.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.