I don't consider myself a passionate advocate for silent-era films — and am often, honestly (shamefully), somewhat reluctant to press play on silent movies — but you wouldn't know it from looking over my Flickchart rankings of such movies. Of the 33 silents that I've watched from the early decades of cinema, my average ranking on Flickchart is an astounding 71.23%, with only four of those movies falling into below-average territory. This is, of course, due to the effect that the silent movies I am most likely to be watching 100+ years later are those that have already been filtered out by posterity as among the best of their form. And, yet, I still suffer from this trepidation that, whenever I sit down to absorb a previously unwatched silent film, I might well be in for an overlong and slowly paced collection of outdated tropes that is celebrated primarily by overeager hipsters for the sake that it is old.
Due to this reluctance on my part, Victor Sjöström's The Phantom Carriage (1921) has for a couple of years now been the top-ranked movie on Flickchart that I hadn't seen in both the silent and horror movie categories, and one of my highest-unranked overall at #464 on the global chart (I've now seen all but three movies from the Top 500). As I tend to aggressively pursue unwatched horror classics, there is really no excuse for me to have put off engaging with this one for so long. I am sorry to say, however, that The Phantom Carriage is that rare silent movie that conforms exactly to my usually unwarranted reservations.
The Phantom Carriage (1921), while nicely shot, is, for the most part, an ordinary melodrama with little distinction, except for its likely influence on later Swedish cinema, particularly the films of Ingmar Bergman. Astrid Holm stars as Edit, a charity worker, who, on her deathbed, wants to see a man who has repeatedly refused both her help and her love. What she doesn't know is that this same man, David Holm (Sjöström), is also dying and has been selected by Death to act as the chauffeur for the dead for the following year.
With its preoccupation with death, and a nod toward the impotence of faith, it's not hard to see how The Phantom Carriage might have imprinted on a young Bergman, but beyond that, it's overlong and slowly paced, and lacks the visual dazzle of the great silent masterpieces. As a further affront, it's not a horror movie by any stretch of the imagination, save for one early shot with an eerie ghostly superimposition effect. There is one scene later on that might be suspected of influencing Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), but that's a retroactive association more than anything emanating from Sjöström's intent. The Phantom Carriage is a simple perils-of-alcoholism morality play, focused on the cruelty and hardness of despair, and lingers excessively on low-information moments as if to placate early audiences who were unable to easily process visual information.
Even ignoring the movie's myopic vision of the afterlife — what a coincidence that, out of the entire world, Death seems to recruit drivers only from this one small Swedish village — Edit suffers from one of cinema's most maddeningly simple-minded cases of fix-him-itis. In the hands of a more ruthless storyteller, Edit might be comparable to the tragic idiot-women of Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves (1996) or Dancer in the Dark (2000), but Sjöström's approach is uncompellingly anodyne and wholesome. To his credit, the acting is, overall, thankfully subtle for a silent melodrama, but that only exacerbates the pacing issues.
As a movie about death, The Phantom Carriage (1921) is closer in tone to Martin Brest's 1998 drama Meet Joe Black, and fans of horror-adjacent silent cinema would be better off with Fritz Lang's visually astounding 1921 Grim Reaper-centered anthology Destiny.