There’s an old legend that states that the last person to die on New Year’s Eve is forced to become a coachman for Death itself and is forced to collect the souls of the dead for the entire year until the next person dies on New Year’s Eve.
The Phantom Carriage (1921) is one the greatest and earliest works in Swedish cinema. The movie starts on New Year’s Eve where a Salvation Army worker named Edit is on her death bed. She wants to speak with David Holm (star, writer and director Victor Sjöström) before she dies. Gustafsson, a friend of Edit’s goes looking for David and finds him drunk in a graveyard with a couple of drinking buddies, telling each other stories. David tells them the legend of Phantom Carriage, which he heard from his old drinking buddy Georges. Sadly though Georges passed away last New Year’s Eve. David when confronted by Gustafsson refuses to go see the dying woman. Gustafsson leaves disappointed but David’s drunken buddies think he’s making a mistake and a fight ensues. In the struggle David is killed and the men leave. Then the Phantom Carriage arrives. And look, Georges is the man behind the wheel, here to collect David and it looks like David is his replacement.
Depending on the cut of the film, it’s either a creepy horror film about a man’s moral salvation or a preachy film about the evils of drinking and tuberculosis. When the film was released in the U.S. it was chopped up into an anti-alcohol film called The Stroke of Midnight. The real cut of the film uses many flashbacks to tell it’s story and it uses a fair amount of special effects. Before double exposures had been perfected using optical printing, they had to painstaking match all the layers of the double exposures. That meant that each camera had to be hand cranked at the exact same speed to make it all look natural. All the ghosts have a very cool ethereal look to them as they pass through walls and doors.
The film also featured a scene that seems to have inspired Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. One scene has a drunken, tuberculosis infected David frightening his wife and children. His wife is afraid that he will infect their children and locks herself and the children in a room. This enrages David who decides to go at the locked door with an axe. There’s no “Here’s Johnny!” but the scene is pretty close. A couple of years earlier D. W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms also had a similar scene making it hard to say who influenced who. The Phantom Carriage was a huge influence on the career of Ingmar Bergman. Death played a prominent role in The Seventh Seal and Bergman had cast Victor Sjöström in Wild Strawberries. The movie is one of those films that defies genre description. Is it a horror film, a fantasy, a melodrama? It’s all of the above and more.