The Phantom Carriage – original title: Körkarlen – is a 1921 Swedish film directed by and starring Victor Sjöström, alongside Hilda Borgström, Tore Svennberg and Astrid Holm. It is based on the novel Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! (Körkarlen; 1912), by Nobel prize-winning Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf.
The film is notable for its special effects, its advanced (for the time) narrative structure with flashbacks within flashbacks, and for having been a major influence on Ingmar Bergman (Hour of the Wolf). Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror film The Shining features several thematic similarities, as well as the famous sequence where Jack Nicholson uses an axe to break through a wooden door.
The original screenings didn’t have an original soundtrack, instead, various pieces by Ture Rangström, Mendelsohn, Saint-Saëns and Max Reger were performed by the orchestras. For a long time several different soundtracks, generally of low quality, were used for television screenings and video releases.
However, in 1998, the Swedish Film Institute commissioned a new soundtrack composed by renowned silent film composer Matti Bye, which was highly praised and has been featured on all following VHS and DVD releases.
At the 2007 San Francisco International Film Festival a new soundtrack was composed and performed live by rock icon Jonathan Richman. Polish prog rock band Signal to Noise Ratio have also provided a soundtrack.
In 2008, Tartan Films released a DVD version of the film in the UK, with a new and contemporary score from electronic group KTL. In 2011, the Criterion Collection released a restored version of the film on Blu-ray and DVD.
On New Year’s Eve, the dying Salvation Army girl Edit has one last wish: to speak with David Holm. David, an alcoholic, is sitting in a graveyard with two drinking buddies, talking about his old friend Georges who told him about Death’s carriage—the legend that the last person to die each year has to work under the “strict master” Death and collect the souls of everybody who dies the following year. Georges himself died on New Year’s Eve last year.
Gustafsson, a friend of Edit who is looking for David, finds him and tries to convince him to go and see her, but David refuses. When his friends too try to convince him, a fight breaks out where David is accidentally killed just before the clock strikes twelve. The carriage appears, and the driver is revealed as Georges…
“Sjöström’s leitmotiv, a ghostly carriage driven by Death rolling through foggy nights and along the seashore, is so powerful that it goes far beyond the symbolic meaning it is supposed to convey to become a celebration of cinema itself. These images infuse the whole movie with a macabre poetry that far outweighs the banality of the story…” The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror
“Slower than death itself, but just as spine chilling, this metaphysical morality play feels less like an artifact from a different era than a wintry warning from another world.” Matt Glasby, Film 4
“The double-exposure photography used throughout is a stupefying achievement of its own, an incantation of overlapping worlds and a visualization of the characters’ growing awareness of the connection between body and soul.” Fernando F. Croce, CinePassion