The Phantom Carriage (KTL Edition) Review

A classic of Swedish silent cinema from one of its early masters Victor Sjöstrom, The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen) is not only notable for the accomplished double-exposure shots that make its ghost-story as chillingly effective as its contemporary Nosferatu, but the film’s A Christmas Carol-like morality tale also reveals a harsher social message that is not diminished by all its supernatural elements. The silent classic has been made available in the UK in two separate editions by Tartan that each present an intriguingly different outlook on the film. This review covers the KTL Edition, while the 2-disc The Image Makers Special Edition is reviewed separately here.

The main events in The Phantom Carriage take place on one particular New Year’s Eve, where the repercussions of previous New Year’s Eves and associated events all come together into a frightening situation. For Edit (Astrid Holm), a Salvation Army worker, it could be her last night on earth, the young woman dying of consumption that she may have contracted on the same night of the previous year. It was on a similar cold, inhospitable winter night a year ago that she first met David Holm (Victor Sjöström), a down-and-out who came to their refuge (charmingly called a “Slumstation” in Swedish) and now, in her final hours, she wants to see the man again to sort out some unfinished business.

David Holm however cannot be found, for he is sitting drinking with other down-and-outs in a cemetery. While waiting for the chimes to announce the beginning of a New Year, he tells his drinking buddies the story of the Phantom Carriage. According to the legend recounted by his old friend Georges (Tore Svennberg), the last person to die on the stroke of midnight on the last day of the year must drive the Carriage of Death for the whole of the following year, collecting the souls of the recently departed from their resting place and conveying them to their final destination. A normally cheerful man, Georges would be become irritable and struck with fear at this time of the year, and by a strange twist of fate, it just so happened that he was the last soul to die on the pervious year. A similar fate is in store for David Holm.

That night David Holm receives a ghostly visitation from his former friend, now the driver of the Phantom Carriage and, in a manner reminiscent of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, he is shown the events that have taken him to the point he is at now. It’s a sorry story of a life gone astray, of a family destroyed and a good man ruined by drink. It’s very much a morality tale, but it’s not a sentimental one and it’s not one that avoids the harsh realities of the social hardships that people have to endure. The film’s impact on Ingmar Bergman is not difficult to notice, notably in The Seventh Seal (1956), but also in Wild Strawberries (1957), Bergman even casting Sjöström himself as an old man nearing the end of his life, reflecting on past mistakes and how they have taken him on a direction he may not have chosen for himself. There is even a ghostly encounter with Death in the film’s famous dream sequence.

Sjöstrom likewise takes The Phantom Carriage more seriously than as a simple ghost story – though it is effectively handled in this respect with some simple but effective double-exposure camera effects – but conveying all this in a silent film presents a considerable challenge. There are several threads, each with different moods and set over different time periods, but the director masterfully manages to draw them all together, using colour tints to differentiate and convey tone while purposefully linking them through the structure of the New Year’s Eve ghost story. Scenes of genuine suffering and quite horrifying abuse are countered with acts of kindness and self-sacrifice, and while such swings often slide a story into overwrought melodrama, Sjöström, as director and as the lead actor David Holm, manages to avoid most of the worst tendencies of a style that can often appear further exaggerated though silent cinema acting. Despite it being essentially a supernatural ghost story and a melodrama, performances remain naturalistic and the film’s treatment of the harsh realities of alcoholism, domestic violence and its impact on families consequently take on a wider social meaning on a level that the viewer can identify with more closely.

The Phantom Carriage is released in the UK by Tartan in two different editions. The two-disc edition has the film on disc one with a score by Matti Bye, and Ingmar Bergman’s 2000 TV film The Image Makers, a drama based around the making of The Phantom Carriage, on the second disc. Both discs are dual-layer, the set is in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2. This edition also includes an insert with an essay by David Parkinson on both films. The Limited Edition is a single-disc DVD (limited to 2000 numbered copies) containing just the main feature with a less traditional silent movie score in PCM Stereo by electronic industrial drone musicians KTL, with a cover design by Stephen O’Malley. The KTL Edition comes with an insert with an introduction by the Brothers Quay. This review covers the KTL Edition. The Image Makers edition is reviewed here.

Although it’s probably had less of a bumpy ride over the years, the transfer of this early silent classic almost rivals the work done on the Masters of Cinema’s recent Nosferatu. which hails from the same period. The film is presented at the correct speed of 16fps in its original full-screen 1.33:1 aspect ratio. There are marvellous tints here, the golden hues and sullen blues each telling their own story in the setting of the mood and time period. There is very little light flickering in evidence, the image transfer remaining remarkably stable and fluid, clearly at the correct frame rate. There is some minor damage and larger marks occasionally visible, but the greater part of the film is in excellent condition and almost flawless. Tones are strong, with fine detail visible. Whites are inevitably a little bright, faces looking a little washed-out, and there is some minor fading down the sides of the print, but overall this is very, very impressive.

Whereas the 2-DVD The Phantom Carriage / The Image Makers Edition of the film has a relatively conventional silent-movie score, this single-disc Phantom Carriage: KTL Edition has an entirely different modern experimental music score by KTL - a collaboration between the musicians Stephen O’Malley of SUNN O))) and Peter Rehberg, aka PITA – that really couldn’t be any more of a contrast to Matti Bye’s arrangement. Waves of electronic industrial drones and creaking guitar sounds seem to echo the mental states of the characters, their inner torments, confusion and mounting horror rather than follow and synchronise to external actions, pushing the events closer to acts of madness. Inevitably, this exerts a powerful presence of its own over the film, but being more abstract, it perhaps opens the film up to different interpretations, depending on the individual’s response to it. It’s evidently not going to be to everyone’s taste and may be quite overwhelming for anyone used to more traditional silent scores. Call me a wimp, but I found it most effective and less distracting when played at a lower volume than it is perhaps intended, and it does certainly have a way of keeping you closely drawn into the film on an unusual level. It is presented in full uncompressed PCM stereo, which is of CD quality.

The film retains the original Swedish intertitles. Optional English subtitles are provided in a clear white font.

Other than the brief introduction to the film and the score by the Brothers Quay included as an insert, there are no extra features on actual DVD of the single disc KTL Edition. Ingmar Bergman’s TV-movie dramatisation of the behind-the-scenes inspiration of the film The Image Makers, is only included on the 2-disc The Phantom Carriage / The Image Makers Edition. Rather than the KTL score, that edition just has the score by Matti Bye.

Tartan’s release of two different editions of The Phantom Carriage presents the buyer with a bit of a dilemma. I don’t think anyone would be disappointed with the 2-disc The Phantom Carriage / The Image Makers, which has a strong score by Matti Bye and the addition of a fine, rarely-seen Ingmar Bergman film that adds to one’s appreciation of the film. With an unusual experimental score, the limited single-disc KTL Edition may only be for the more adventurous, but is certainly worth checking out for the unexpected depths it finds in the film. It’s a pity Tartan couldn’t have found a way to include both scores on one edition. The presentation qualities of the film and their soundtracks however are most impressive whichever you choose, and as such, this classic film is well worth picking up in either or both editions.

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