The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Life and death—key figures in any film. They represent what everyone knows to be true: everyone dies. It's cruel, but true. Everyone lives, or has lived at one time. Yet "living" has come to mean something else that just existing. To live is to be selfless. To live is to have no regrets. To live is to be fruitful. Not everyone lives by these definitions.
So it's no surprise to see "The Phantom Carriage" takes a dark look at a man's life, much like Dickens' A Christmas Carol did. Later we would get cheerier works like "It's a Wonderful Life" (on a side note, please no sequels), but it all gets traced back to the life and death of miserable drunks...good for nothings.
These movies do have a silver lining, they are saying that good can be found in any person, no matter how despicable.
"The Phantom Carriage", originally titled "Körkarlen" in Sweden, begins with a Salvation Army nurse on her death bed. She cries out for a man named David Holm...her mother rejects this idea, wanting the last minutes of the girl's life to only be hers. But a dying wish can hardly be ignored, we are taken to David Holm, a drunk, sitting on the side of the road with his buddies. He watches the clock overhead on the church ominously count down to midnight. It's New Years Eve.
Recounting the days of old, David tells a story about his friend Georges.
Georges was a happy soul, drinking the nights away in bliss. He lured David away from his family and responsibilities in order to live a life full of uncaring alcohol. Georges was fun; but something came over him. A year ago, Georges became melancholy around the new year. He claimed that he didn't want to die. Those who were the last soul to pass on on New Years Eve would have to drive the phantom carriage for the year to come.
David laughs at his friend's stupidity. How could someone believe in that superstition?
Then a man comes to David and lets him know of the young woman beckoning him on her death bed. He scoffs and continues to drain his drink. His two companions are shocked at him, how could he deny a dying wish? Was there no heart to this man? They wrestle with David and soon a full-fledged fight begins. One of the men, not thinking clearly due to too many quaffs, hits David over the head with a bottle. He dies.
They stalk off into the night and the clock chimes midnight. The phantom carriage arrives. Driving it is none other than Georges, who at last feels relief for being able to ask forgiveness of David. But David isn't ready to die yet, he forces his soul to attempt to return to his body—he fails, being drawn to the driver by a supernatural force.
The driver of the phantom carriage is grim reaper figure. He carries a scythe and wears a long cape with a hood.
Like A Christmas Carol, death shows David his life in perspective.
"The Phantom Carriage" is much less about the driver and the carriage itself and more about David Holm and his life. There is a romance that doesn't work and the movie drags on too long for my liking; but I can appreciate the ground breaking nature of the film.
"The Phantom Carriage" has inspired many filmmakers, a most eerie similarity is found between this movie and Kubrick's "The Shining". It is a film that was unafraid and employed great special effects for the time.
In the end, the movie may not be my favorite, but I love how dark it is and how it treats death with just the right amount of respect.

Score: 3 out of 4 stars

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