Catching The Phantom Carriage at the Dryden Theatre
Recently I had the pleasure of viewing a silent horror film from 1921 titled The Phantom Carriage, a superbly eerie, creepy and emotional film from Swedish director, actor and screenwriter Victor Sjöström.
The film revolves around a troubled man named David Holm, played by Victor Sjöström, who, after dying at the stroke of midnight, must face his sins and atone for them at the command of death’s servant, the driver of The Phantom Carriage, whose place he is to take. I saw the film at The Dryden Theatre in Rochester NY (where I live) and was joined by my friend and co-film reviewer, Josh Blodgett.
To start with, the intro given before the film began was wonderful. The Dryden has someone introduce and give a little back story before all the films they screen, and they are always informative and entertaining. I unfortunately didn’t catch the name of the man who gave the introduction, but he was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the film, though he did contest The Phantom Carriage’s status as a horror film (which I’ll get back to), and gave a five star piano accompaniment throughout the entirety of the film.
We learned in the introduction that this was a newly restored print of The Phantom Carriage, and this was its first time being played. It was absolutely gorgeous. To add to this, the audience was great.
One of my gripes about going to see a silent film in theaters is that many times people tend to snigger and guffaw at the over-emotive acting and facial expressions/actions of the actors in the film, even when they’re not meant to be comical. However, this audience was, for the most part, quite respectful. At the pivotal point in the film where Victor Sjöström’s character is on his knees, by the bedside of the woman who’s dying because of his cruel actions in life, an anguished look painted across his face, the tense silence in the audience was delicious.
The subtitles and projection of the print were also top notch and added to a perfect viewing experience of a beautiful film. That is, a beautiful horror film.
I can see where the man who gave the informative introduction and masterful piano accompaniment wouldn’t consider The Phantom Carriage a horror film. It’s not overly scary now, for one thing (although I have no doubt it creeped people out when it first premiered in 1921), and it’s not all chills and thrills (though it should be noted that there are quite a few scenes in The Phantom Carriage that mirror scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaption of Stephen King’s book The Shining).
But the fact that the film deals with death in such an evocative and arguably scary manner through the use of imagery, set design, special effects, lighting, and the lens of the supernatural cautionary tale (think A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens), I feel alone warrants its status as a horror film.
An example of a book that I feel is much in the same “mystical” vein of horror as The Phantom Carriage would be Toni Morrison’s seminal book Beloved. Like Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage, Toni Morrison’s book Beloved deals with not only ghosts and the supernatural but death, poverty, and revenge (as well as racism).
Toni Morrison’s book demonstrates how theses metaphysical and physical horrors combined can erode at the soul, mind and body of a person, and his or her family and friends, much like they did to David Holm and all of those in his life.
It’s not only the presence of the supernatural that makes The Phantom Carriage a horror film any more than it’s only the presence of the supernatural that makes Beloved a horror novel. It’s the presence of death, poverty and revenge, real life natural horrors brought into physical form by the supernatural in both of these works that earns them the horror status.
To end with, I had wonderful time. The Dryden Theatre is a treasure who every film fan, regardless of genre preference, should make a pilgrimage to. I can’t wait to return to see Eraserhead, David Lynch’s first feature film, on Thursday, August 10 and David Lynch: The Art Life, a documentary on David Lynch and his work on Friday, August 11.
Look for reviews of both films and their screenings on this Morbidly Beautiful website and on the YouTube channel I share with my co-film reviewer Josh Blodgett. We did a video review of The Phantom Carriage which can be viewed on our channel Psychic Celluloid Signals.
A special thanks to the Dryden for allowing us to review this classic film.