Nothing like a good horror story to cheer you up for the New Year. After seeing Victor Sjöström's Körkarlen (The Phantom Carriage), first screened 1/1/1921 anything will seem joyous. Even the Salvation Army comes over sexy. Can you miss this?
Sister Edit, a sturdy-looking maiden is dying on New Year's Eve. She has one last wish, to see David Holm. He refuses to come. His wife runs in, kissing the girl's hand. What's going on? Cut to David Holm and his drunken mates, carousing in the graveyard. Last year their pal George died on the stroke of midnight. "George went to university at Uppsala" says David, "He knows things". But still ended up a bum.
The men fight, and on the stroke of midnight, David falls over and cracks his head. Up draws a rickety old carriage pulled by a wasted nag. It's George. "Whoever dies in sin at midnight must harvest souls for a year". The Grim Reaper takes David on his rounds.
In the photo, notice the use of double images to create a ghostly effect. That's David's dead body there. This film was made during 1920, so the technique was brand-new, hauntingly atmospheric. In the current DVD restoration, the soundtrack is fantastic. Hollow, metallic sounds like a slowed heartbeat, or the ticking of a clock that isn't right. This is a soundtrack that actually follows the action. It skips a beat when David jumps. Wonderful atmospheric scenes of the phantom carriage harvesting souls on land and sea and in the sky, collecting the souls of rich and poor. Extremely beautiful in its own eerie way, like abstract art. "A moment here is like a hundred years on earth" says the Grim Reaper.
Körkarlen is nothing like the silent films of the era. Instead it achieves its effects by subtle atmospheric plays of light and shadow and double images which move and realign so smoothly you almost forget what's real and what isn't.
The original novel, by Selma Lagerlöf (another of these progressive Scandinavian and Finnish feminist authors) is apparently more into social issues like drink, TB and slum control via The Salvation Army, all perfectly valid in an era before penicillin and social security, Sjöström however is working in a completely new medium, with completely new ideas. Elsewhere they're filming The Keystone Cops. Sjöström's doing a psychological study and high art. The supernatural effects to enhance the unstable balance between inner and outer reality, so they express what the characters can't. .As they're riding along, the Grim Reaper says to David, "If there's one thing I could tell people, it would be to hope their lives reach maturity before they are felled". In other words, to learn wisdom and goodness before it's too late. It's not Salvation Army hell, brimstone and hard living, but basic good sense. Not at all a depressing movie, despite the subject.