Scary Silents: “The Phantom Carriage”
Welcome to the second installment of my new “Scary Silents” series! In the last post, we watched the Swedish-Danish witchcraft classic Häxan, and today we’re continuing the Swede theme with the spooky 1921 drama The Phantom Carriage (known in Swedish as Körkarlen), directed by and starring Victor Sjöström. This is really a beautiful film, with innovative ghost effects for the day and a surprisingly modern narrative structure, and it was a major influence on Ingmar Bergman, no less. It’s not strictly a horror film, I suppose, more like a ghostly morality play, but close enough, I figure. Let the Phantom Phun begin! If you’d like to watch along, here you go:
We open on a deathbed, so you know right away we’re in tragic Swedish movie mode. Edit, a Salvation Army sister, is dying of galloping consumption, which I take to mean that the disease is pummeling her into submission with its terrible cloven hooves. She is attended by her mother and another sister who I guess is her friend. Everyone looks very dour, as you would in this situation. The dying Edit is bizarrely insistent that a man named David Holm be summoned to her side before she dies. The movie doesn’t tell us who this is, or what the relationship between him and Edit is, but the two women at the deathbed seem kinda cheesed off by her request. Mom even says she wants the dying girl all to herself (WTF, Mom) and not to go get the mystery guy, but Edit insists, so the friend toddles off to find the dude. Dying people are so bossy, you guys.
Friend first meets up with a male friend named Gustavsson, and sends him off to the bar to look for David Holm, because evidently everyone in town knows that David Holm is a raging drunk who rarely vacates his barstool. Then she goes to a shack which turns out to be Casa de Holm, and seems to waltz right in without knocking. There’s a miserable, exhausted-looking woman in there, presiding over two sleeping children. It comes to light that this is Mrs. Holm, and the friend brings her along to Edit’s place, presumably leaving the two children alone in the shack in the middle of the night, because Swedish kids scoff at your unneeded adult supervision. When they get back to Edit’s, the friend says that Gustavsson is out looking for David, but that meanwhile she has brought the chipper Mrs. Holm as a consolation prize. Mrs. Holm hovers over Edit’s bed with her hands clawing towards her face like she’s about to do some evil spell on her or suck out her soul through her nasal cavities, but Edit just says, “Poor Mrs. Holm!” and kisses her all over her sad, sad face, after which Mrs. Holm collapses on her chest and the ladies have a good Swedish cry. At this point I’ll admit that I have not the slightest inkling what in the Scandinavian Hëll is going on, but perhaps soon all will become clear.
Meanwhile, the perpetually schnockered David is sitting in a cemetery drinking with two of his grizzled buddies. He glances at the clock tower and sees that it’s twenty minutes to midnight, and exposits that it’s New Year’s Eve, a very significant night. He jokes that he hopes his drinking buddies aren’t afraid of ghosts, because y’know how annoyed dead people get when you sit over their graves drinking and don’t pour one on the ground for the homies. Then he begins telling a story (which is shown in flashback) about his friend Georges and the legend that the last person to die on New Year’s Eve is cursed to drive Death’s carriage for a year and collect all the souls of the people who die subsequently. I’m not sure how this system would work with the different time zones and what not, but maybe Death has franchised out the whole carriage business and has many representatives collecting souls in varying locations, like a bunch of spectral middle managers. There are some effectively creepy scenes of a man in a hooded cloak driving his black carriage transparently through the streets. He stops before a house in which a pinched rich man with a striking resemblance to Peter Cushing sits at his desk and decides all this wealth and comfort is for the birds, man, before shooting himself with a teeny pistol. Phantom Carriage Driver ghosts through the door and sees the dead man on the floor, gives a take-this-job-and-shove-it sigh, and crouches down to bodily heft the man’s soul from out of his prone body, probably wondering if the man’s soul had been hitting the Häagen Dazs or something, because DAMN. There’s also a cool, evocative shot of the carriage moving through the ocean, picking up the deceased victim of an overturned boat that’s floating dejectedly in the waves. So then David’s back with his drinking buddies, and warning them that even if they were planning on it, no one better die tonight or they’ll be stuck driving the death carriage and no one wants that, right? Dying any other time is totally cool, tho.
Then we’re back with Edit and her mom, and Edit is still being Miss Terminal Pesky-Pants about why David isn’t there yet. Why she needs to see this lush so urgently is anyone’s guess, but maybe she just wants one last whiff of stale whiskey breath filtered through a scraggly gray beard before she dies. I’m not gonna judge. In the next shot, Gustavsson spots the three drunketeers in the cemetery and tells David that Edit is dying, and hadn’t he better hasten along and see her? David’s all HA HA NOPE and Gustavsson gives him a “screw you too, dickbag” look before storming off. David’s friends are all NOT COOL BRO, YOU SHOULD GO and David’s all FUCK THAT HO, I GOT DRINKIN’ TO DO and then he points at the clock, which shows that it’s like two minutes to midnight. A scuffle ensues as the friends attempt to correct David’s douchehattery through violence, and predictably, David is killed when one of the friends gets a tad overzealous vis-a-vis busting a glass bottle across his fool head. Realizing their tragic overstepping of boundaries, they nope the fuck out of the cemetery, leaving David lying there in a pool of blood and liquor stank.
Right on cue, here comes the Phantom Carriage, and the driver is probably going all SWEET, I’M AUDI, HERE’S NEXT YEAR’S SUCKER, and David’s soul half-rises out of his body and you can just tell by his face that he’s all AWWWW SHIT. I have to say that the carriage does look pretty eerie and awesome, especially for 1921. The driver of the carriage, who of course is David’s friend Georges from the flashback story, pulls back his hood and David’s all DAAAAAAAAMN, I’M FUCKED and Georges is all BRO, THAT YOU? IMMA COME DOWN OFF THIS THING and he sits on a gravestone next to David and is all like, DUDE THIS SUCKS, I CAN’T BELIEVE IT’S YOU and David’s all I KNOW, RIGHT, WHAT ARE THE ODDS and then SO, YOU GONNA PUT ME IN YOUR CART OR WHAT and Georges is like BITCH, YOU KNOW BETTER THAN THAT, YOU’RE ON THE HOOK FOR THIS SHIT NOW. He also mentions that not only does David now have to pilot the death wagon, but oh yeah, also that there’s gonna be some Scrooge-type action where he’ll have to spend the next year reliving all the assholey shit he did throughout his life, so there’s another fun perk of the job. To this end, Georges says that he blames himself for David’s death, in a way, since he was the one that lured David into the drunken debauchery that saw him neglecting his family and generally turning into a useless garbage person.
Georges shows a magic flashback of David when he was a younger man, all set with a promising career and a fetching wife who cooked yummy stews at picnics and adorable children who frolicked naked in lakes and picked wildflowers and did adorable Swedish kid things. I admit this scene kinda confused me, because at first I thought the older guy was supposed to be David, and that he had a son in his twenties or something, but then I guess the younger guy is supposed to be him. Right? Who’s the older guy, then? And why does his wife look old enough to be his mom? I don’t understand the Swedish family dynamic, apparently. Then the idyllic family picture fades out and there’s David and his drinking buddies sitting in the same field looking like hobos, laughing and drinking and smoking cigars and playing harmonicas, like you do. Then there’s David’s wife Anna in their ramshackle house, holding one of the kids and stirring a much less happy stew with her free hand, looking all FML. Teenage David staggers in drunk and starts shoving everybody around, like a tool. Oh wait, maybe this is David’s son, and David took him out and got him hammered, because then Anna picks up the little kids and goes outside, and there’s one of the drinking buddies in the street standing over a sloshed, passed-out motherfucker, who is presumably David. Anna’s all FUCK THIS SHIT and she stands there rolling her eyes so hard she can probably see her cerebral cortex. The kids look all pitiful, and stare at their dad with eyes that seem to be shooting shame-lasers.
Then it looks like David is in the pokey, and rightly so, I reckon. A guy in a tux and a French Foreign Legion lookin’ dude with an epic mustache look gravely at David, and then lead him out of his cell and show him into the cell next door, which contains David’s son, looking all tweaked out and undead. DO YOU SEE WHAT YOU’VE DONE, DAVID? DO YOU??? David is bugging out, and the tuxedo man keeps telling him shit, but I don’t know what it is, because for some reason, at this point, whoever did the English subtitles for the version I watched was all FUCK IT, YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN, NON-SWEDISH SPEAKERS, so I guess now I can just make up my own dialogue. So David’s all, DAMN, THAT’S SOME CIRRHOSIS YOU GOT THERE, BOY, MY BAD and the son’s looking up at his dad all pleading and sweaty, and David’s all WELL, THAT’S ENOUGH REALITY FOR TODAY and goes back to his cell. The subtitles kinda come back, so I can say for sure that tuxedo man says SEE, DON’T YOU FEEL LIKE A SHITHEEL and David’s all YEAH, GOT ME RIGHT IN THE FEELS and then the subtitles abscond again, but it looks like David is making some kind of proclamation about getting his shit together, but because this is a flashback you know what a steaming pile all of that is.
David gets outta the hoosegow and goes skipping merrily back to his apartment, but the door is locked and no one answers his knocks. He grabs the key from under the mat and goes charging into the place, only to find that—shocker—Anna has taken off and left him. He has the audacity to look surprised about this development, for why would any woman in her right mind abandon such a prize husband? He goes to the neighbor and is all WHERE THE HELL DID MY FAMILY GO and the neighbor is like DUDE, ARE YOU RETARDED OR SOMETHING and then he’s gesticulating at the neighbor lady and she is giving him some super intense shade and just looking at him like she’d like to punch him right in the danglies. Then, to add insult to injury, another neighbor lady comes up and gestures to him like OH, IS THIS THE ASSHOLE and the first neighbor lady is like YOU KNOW IT, SISTER, CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS SHIT and the power of their combined condescension drives him right back into his empty apartment, where he can still hear them laughing at him out in the hallway. And then, because he is a man, he’s all I THOUGHT I WOULD JUST COME BACK AND EVERYTHING WOULD BE PEACHY KEEN, FUCK ALL BITCHES FOREVER and then he goes to whine about it on some MRA forum somewhere (okay, not really). The ladies continue to laugh and laugh, and he’s all huffing and puffing and probably thinking I’LL SHOW EVERYONE, GODDAMMIT, I’M GONNA WIN THE GOLD MEDAL AT THE DRINKING OLYMPICS, THEN YOU’LL ALL BE SORRY, but all he does is throw his little parcel of stuff on the floor and take a swig of water out of the sink faucet. Go for the gusto, David.
Then we’re back with spirit-David and spirit-Georges on the gravestone. They talk for a long time, but there are no subtitles again, so I’m just gonna assume they’re discussing how the Swedish bikini team is looking this year. When the subtitles return, there’s another flashback, and I’m able to discern that Georges was the one who sent David to the Salvation Army station to get help for his drankin’ and general fucktardiness, and aha, here we see where the stories of David and Edit intersect. IT ALL MAKES SENSE TO ME NOW. There’s Edit, looking all spry before the consumption galloped on her, and there’s the friend from her bedside at the beginning of the movie, whose name is Maria I think. Fun fact: The Swedish word for Salvation Army Station is “slumstation,” so make of that what you will.
David leans on the doorbell, and the girls are reluctant to open the door because it’s really late at night and they’re there alone, but they finally do and David lurches drunkenly at them. Friend is all LET’S NOT LET THIS CREEP IN HERE but Edit is all COME IN, MY POOR CHILD, so in he staggers. They offer him food, but he’s all FUCK YOUR FOOD, BITCHES and they’re all BUT YOU CAME HERE, SO…? They then offer him a bed and he’s all K, I’LL TAKE THAT and falls into a stupor. Edit notices that his coat is ripped, so she goes to mend it, even though the friend is still kinda like WHY DID WE LET THIS SHITHEAD IN, I CAN’T EVEN. Edit prays for David, and stays up all night fixing his coat, and then we discover that the bum’s filthy, cootie-addled outerwear is what gave her the consumption that would eventually kill her. Fuckin’ David, man. Even his germs are assholes. When he wakes up the next morning, he notices that his coat is good as new, and for some reason is a total douchenozzle about it, tearing off all the pockets and buttons, all I HAD IT JUST THE WAY I WANTED IT, WHY YOU GO AND FUCK IT UP LIKE THAT. Classy. Edit, instead of bashing his face in with a shovel, is all zen about it and tells him that since she had prayed for him, she wants him to come back and visit on New Year’s Eve, perhaps to see if God has seen fit to straighten his stupid ass out. He’s all WHATEVS, I GOT YOUR GOD RIGHT HERE and makes his dickheady way off into the night.
Back at the gravestone, spirit-Georges is all SEE WHAT A FUCKER YOU WERE and spirit-David is like I’M NOT THAT BAD AM I and Georges is like HATE TO BREAK IT TO YOU, BRO, GET YOUR ASS UP ON THAT CARRIAGE SEAT and David’s all NUH UH, IMMA GO BACK IN MY BODY, WATCH THIS ACTION and his spirit lies back down in the corpse while Georges looks at him like YOU FUCKIN’ EEDJIT, YOU CAN’T DO THAT and puts his hood back on like I’M TOO OLD AND TOO DEAD FOR THIS BULLSHIT, MAN. David keeps trying to get out of it, and Georges is all like THEM’S THE RULES, and then spirit-David then gets all belligerent and throws down with spirit-Georges. GHOST FIGHT, Y’ALL. Georges ties him up with invisible string, because that’s how he rolls, and puts his trussed-up ass in the carriage, probably thinking I CAN’T BELIEVE I HAVE TO PUT UP WITH THIS SHIT ON MY LAST DAY ON THE JOB, FUCK THE AFTERLIFE SO HARD.
In the next part, Georges has brought the death carriage to Edit’s house and dragged David’s ghost ass inside. No one can see Georges except Edit, and she’s all like, WHUT, DEATH IS HERE ALREADY, THAT DOUCHEBAG DAVID HASN’T EVEN COME YET and ghost-David cowers on the floor, properly shamed. It doesn’t appear that Edit can see David, because she tells Death-Georges that she can’t face the Lawd until she knows what happened to the asshole (I think; the subtitles are spotty again). Death-Georges says he’ll grant her a reprieve, because I guess he can do that.
Then there’s another flashback to Edit in a bar trying to talk some sense into David, who is shockingly getting drunk with his friends once again. She shows him something on a piece of paper, which he crumples up with a sneer, even though she is still smiling into his stupid, horrible face. Then he throws the crumpled up paper at her, and smirks like he’s the funniest motherfucker ever. Edit then douses him with alcohol and sets him alight, coolly lighting a cigarette off his burning flesh while he screams in agony. Oh wait, that doesn’t happen. She just huffs off and finds her Salvation Army friend and they wander off. Then the wife of one of the other drinkers at David’s table comes in and tries to drag him off, and everyone in the bar is like OH SHIT, IT’S ON, and David tells him to stop being so pussywhipped and sit his ass down. Then the wife gets all up in David’s grill, accusing him of turning her husband into a bum, and then Edit comes over and tries to intervene again. The guy slumps his shoulders and leaves with his wife, and David laughs at him and pours another drink. The other drinking buddy is also receptive to Edit’s message, and he looks lovingly at her as she tries to persuade him to give up the demon drink and get his life sorted out. He takes one of her flyers, which is for a Salvation Army rally, and he’s totally gonna go, and David’s all like YEAH, GO AND GET SAVED, SUCKA, IMMA SIT HERE BY MYSELF AND BE THE MOST AWESOME DRUNK I CAN BE, and proceeds to do exactly that.
Cut to the rally, where turns out David has showed up after all, looking a tad sheepish. His drinking buddy goes up to the pulpit with Edit to pray and all that, and David laughs like hell at him because he can’t just be cool and supportive of his friend’s new lifestyle, oh no, he has to turn the fucknugget knob all the way up to eleven. David’s wife is also there, and she has a look on her face like I CANNOT BELIEVE I LET THAT ASSCLOWN TOUCH MY LADY PARTS, and all the other people in the meeting are yelling at David and telling him to pipe the fuck down. Edit marches straight back to where David is sitting and gives him a death glare. The party slowly breaks up, and we see that a man who is the spitting image of Charles Darwin is also in attendance, so good for him for evolving out of his alcoholism (I know, boooooo).
Before he leaves, David has to get that one last punch on his asshole card by accosting a clearly ill woman who is coughing pitifully against a wall. Edit comes up and tells him to knock it off, and David tells her that he’s leaving town. Edit says he can’t do that because she still wants to help him, although honestly all I’d like to help David do at this point is get crushed under the wheels of a bus. So then David fucks off, and his wife approaches Edit. The two women go off into a room to discuss what a useless turd her husband is. Anna’s all YUP, I LEFT HIS ASS and Edit seems all sad about this instead of being all YEAH, HIGH FIVE, GIRL. Edit’s all YOU NEED TO TAKE HIM BACK and Anna’s all WTF ARE YOU SMOKING, but then she relents under Edit’s do-gooder onslaught and agrees to saddle herself with David’s sorry ass again, though the look on her face is all PLEASE GOD KILL ME NOW. Edit arranges the meeting, and David comes into the room. Edit’s all SURPRISE, ANNA’S BACK and Anna’s all, UM, HI…? And Edit’s all IMMA LEAVE THESE TWO LOVEBIRDS ALONE, BOW CHICKA WOW.
Then comes the next part, where Edit is in bed and the friend is reading to her. So it looks like that consumption has galloped in at last, and perhaps Edit realizes now that no good deed goes unpunished…? But no, she’s still all Pollyanna about everything, and it’s a little infuriating. Next we see Anna sewing in the house and drunk-ass David coming home and kicking the door open and glaring at his wife like he’s gonna knock her the fuck out. He hovers creepily over his sleeping children and Anna’s all DON’T YOU FUCKING DARE and then he starts flicking their noses and coughing his consumption cooties all over them, because he is literally worse than Hitler. He takes his shiny-ass pants into the next room; meanwhile Anna locks him in there (HOORAY!), packs up the children and gets ready to bail. David breaks the door open with an axe, screaming HEEEEEEEERE’S JOHNNY (not really), and before he even gets all the way through, Anna has passed out on the floor, leaving her children at their father’s mercy. For some reason, David feels kinda bad about the fainting thing, and brings his wife some water. She wakes up and gives him a look like he’s some dogshit she scraped off her shoe. He’s all NOT SO EASY TO TAKE OFF THIS TIME, HO and she’s all WTF, WHEN ARE YOU JUST GONNA BE A PERSON.
And then we’re back in the present, with dying Edit telling Ghost-Georges that she never should have brought David and Anna back together, but that she loved David so much and just wanted to help him. David busts out of his ghost-restraints and approaches the bed. Edit sees him and is all YAY, YOU’RE HERE, SHAME ABOUT THE DEATH THO, and the last thing she does before she dies is to say that she releases him from his prison. Wait, does this mean he doesn’t have to drive the death-carriage now? How does that work? Is there a loophole we never got told about? And does Georges get fucked in the ass now vis-a-vis driving the carriage for another whole year? So many questions, you guys.
The next scene shows Georges and David on the carriage seat, and Georges is saying DUDE, IF I COULD TELL HUMANS ONE THING, YO and then there’s something about a New Year’s prayer asking God not to kill their asses until they’ve grown the fuck up. Which is something I can get behind. Georges then pulls the carriage up to Casa de Holm, and David’s all WTF NO ONE GONNA DIE HERE and Georges is all SHOWS WHAT YOU KNOW, DIPSHIT, and then they go in and see that Anna is all I AM SO DONE and is fixing to ice her kids before taking herself out of this vale of tears. Fuckin’ tragic, is what it is, and it’s all David’s fault. Ghost-David starts freaking, telling Georges to do something, but Georges is all NOPE, HANDS ARE TIED, BITCH, PLUS YOU GOTTA WATCH IT HAPPEN, SUCKS TO BE YOU. David continues his meltdown, wondering if he should pray to God or Jesus (both? Maybe throw Krishna and Ahura Mazda and Zeus in there too for good measure?), and then he’s all OH MAN, I WAS SUCH A PIECE OF SHIT and Georges and everyone watching is like, DUH, TOOK YOU LONG ENOUGH.
And then, because this was getting too depressing even for the Swedish, it turns out that David wasn’t even dead after all! He wakes up on the gravestone and goes tear-assing back to his house in time to stop his wife from that whole murder-suicide thing she was so looking forward to. So it was all a dream, or something? David tells Anna that he was at Sister Edit’s bedside when she died and that he promised to be a good dude now, but Anna is all YOU SUCK, SISTER MARIA SAID YOU NEVER SHOWED UP, so I guess he did dream all of that. But then David starts to cry, and Anna is all MAYBE YOU’RE NOT SO BAD AFTER ALL and then David tries to start a pity party by saying that he wants to be good but no one believes him and that’s why he’s crying. And I’m all, are you for real? And even Anna is like, well, considering your past behavior, y’know, but I guess you’re really crying, so I’m convinced you’re not a fuckbucket anymore. The very last scene is of David doing that New Year’s prayer that Georges talked about, with his weeping wife’s head in his lap. So yay, I guess? I’m skeptical that this all worked out all right, to be honest. I need to see the sequel where David falls off the wagon yet again, gets killed for real when he’s run over by a carriage (because irony), then is sent to Hell to polish the Devil’s knob for all eternity. Meanwhile, Anna gets a makeover, moves to Tahiti with her kids, takes up watercolor painting and marries a sexy lesbian fan dancer who treats her like a queen and gives her lots of sex and money and diamonds and they live happily ever after. I WANT TO BELIEVE.
Well. I hope you’ve enjoyed this rather verbose deconstruction of The Phantom Carriage, and if you liked it, I hope you’ll keep a lookout for new movies in the series when I post them. Until next time, Goddess out.