This week’s column piece may be a short one as London Film Festival has kept me busy, but I’m still carrying on with the spooky theme for October by highlighting a classic horror film from the silent era that you should check out: The Phantom Carriage (1921).
One of the most important and earliest works in Swedish cinema, The Phantom Carriage, is adapted by Selma Lagerlof’s novel Korkarlen. Lagerlof was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature and had previous books adapted for the screen. She was unsure about Korkarlen’s adaptability, but after sitting down with writer and director, Victor Sjostrom, she bought him dinner as a sign of her approval. The film itself follows a drunken man who reflects on his wasted and selfish life thanks to the character of Death. Folklore says that the last person to die each year has to drive Death’s carriage and collect the souls of everybody who dies the following year. Dracula did for Nosferatu what A Christmas Carol did for The Phantom Carriage, except what places The Phantom Carriage as a classic for this era is its special effects on bringing to life the concepts of ghosts and the afterlife.
Back then there were no optical illusions, so everything had to be done with hand-cranked cameras. The ghosts are created by double exposures made in the camera – a technique that allowed these characters to walk around the location properly whilst still maintaining an illusion of transparency. This feat wasn’t easy and required the cranking of these alternative shots to be exactly identical to avoid any movements looking odd. It’s an effect suited to the gothic style of horror that the early era of filmmaking was. It still looks revolutionary today and has a sense of creativity that a lot of big-budget horrors just can’t replicate. Visually, it’s stunning and on the recent Criterion release, even better.
If you’re looking to expand your horror palette this Halloween, I would definitely recommend looking into the silent era to see what it can bring you. Not just The Phantom Carriage, but there are so many different forms of filmmaking from German Expressionism to Hitchcock’s early work. Get your spook on!
Header Image Courtesy of IMDb.