The ’20s were, for all intents and purposes, the birth of the feature-length horror film. While there had been some dabbling in the genre prior, (The Student of Prague, The Avenging Conscience, The Queen of Spades) The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) changed everything. In its wake came Nosferatu, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Unknown, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Phantom of the Opera, among others, irreversibly changing the course of genre history. But of this early wave of horror, two stand movies in particular stand out: the first two Swedish horror films.
Released back to back in 1921, The Phantom Carriage was one of the most audacious films of its day. Based on Selma Lagerlöf’s classic novel Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness!, The Phantom Carriage is a supernatural morality play about David Holm (played by director Victor Sjöström), a lonely, miserable drunk spending New Year’s Eve drinking in a graveyard and telling ghost stories.
Well, one story in particular. The legend has it that if you’re the last person to die in a year, your soul is cursed to take the reins of Death’s carriage, spending the next 365 days collecting the souls of the dead. While he drinks, a man comes to him, claiming a dying Salvation Army Sister named Edit (Astrid Holm) wants to see him before she dies. David violently refuses, and what do you know, he’s hit and killed right before midnight. He’s the last person to die this year. The carriage awaits.
The core of the story follows David’s trip on the carriage, currently driven by David’s deceased friend Georges (Tore Svennberg). It’s through this—and a series of flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks—that we learn the nature of David and Georges’ history, as well as David’s relations to his family and Sister Edit.
At its heart, The Phantom Carriage is less of a horror movie as we imagine it in the modern sense and more of a traditional ghost story in the vein of A Christmas Carol. Yes, there are ghosts and ethereal carriages and fits of mania that lead to a man busting down a door with an axe to attack his wife and child (take a guess if Kubrick was a fan), but the story is focused on providing melancholia instead of shocks.
But damn if it isn’t good at the melancholia. While the novel’s story certainly does a good chunk of the heavy lifting, it’s impossible to discredit just how good Sjöström is behind the camera. By the time he directed The Phantom Carriage, Sjöström had already helmed a dozen films, and his experience shows. Like the best of ghostly dramas, The Phantom Carriage pulls off an incredible balancing act between its high-concept frame story and the grounded drama that makes up the rest of the film.
As mentioned earlier, Sjöström isn’t only the director of The Phantom Carriage, he also serves as the film’s lead actor. He’s hardly giving a subtle performance in the role, but he’s certainly giving a great one, throwing his all into making the most animated David possible. And it works! He’s simply magnetic in the role, giving one of those brilliant silent performances you just can’t look away from.
The rest of the cast aren’t slouches either. Astrid Holm brings real weight and tragedy to Sister Edit, while Tore Svennberg just knocks it out of the park with a downbeat, crushing portrayal of Georges. Svennberg in particular is a real treat to see alongside Sjöström, acting as a (relatively) subdued rock to play off Sjöström’s frenzied performance.
If you can’t tell so far, The Phantom Carriage is just a generally very well-done film, and that extends to just about every area of the production. Frequent Sjöström collaborator Julius Jaenzon does a great job with the cinematography, hitting a sweet spot between tried-and-true cinematography conventions and stylization that always makes the film fun to watch. It helps that the production design is also quite good, with plenty of sets—particularly the spooky graveyard that makes up much of the first act—being a joy to behold.
As if all that wasn’t enough, The Phantom Carriage also holds the distinction of having some of the very best special effects in early cinema. Both the ghosts and the carriage are done with great double exposure effects, meaning you have semi-transparent ghosts walking around solid spaces in a way that looks shockingly natural, especially considering how difficult and tedious actually pulling off this effect was at the time.
So yes, to put it lightly, The Phantom Carriage is a very good film. It’s one of those great, rare movies where almost every technical aspect works in synch with the film’s themes and story, and it accomplishes all of the goals it sets out to achieve with flying colors. Admittedly, it’s also a film that I couldn’t find myself connecting with all that much past purely technical appreciation. Granted, I can’t say how much of that is the film’s doing versus my own personal taste in drama—I’ve never been one for these sorts of time travel redemption tales (no, not even It’s a Wonderful Life) —but The Phantom Carriage is something I recognize is very good, just not the way I like my spooky silents.
I much prefer films like Häxan.
Released only one year after The Phantom Carriage, Benjamin Christensen’s Haxan is, tonally and stylistically speaking, the polar opposite of Phantom Carriage. While The Phantom Carriage is a restrained parable about redemption wrapped up in genre trappings, Häxan is pure balls-to-the-wall horror/fantasy disguised as a documentary.
Well, that’s not entirely true. See, it is actually a documentary before anything else—just a very unusual one. Häxan came out in a time when feature documentaries were still blossoming into existence, and none had ventured into the same territory as the 1922 film, which deals in the realm of superstition and fiction as much as it does fact, mixing descriptions of the origins of occultism and the fears of witchcraft in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries with phantasmagorical depictions of witches and magic.
Obviously, director Benjamin Christensen couldn’t just travel back in time to capture period footage for the film, so he had to get creative. Almost all of the footage in the film consists of period recreations that can be split into two categories. The first are the grislier, real-world recreations, with costumed men and women reenacting witch trials, tortures, and brutal executions.
These segments are informative first, but they can also feel a bit like an excuse to get away with showing nudity and violence that would’ve been unacceptable in a film that wasn’t also trying to be a historical document. In a way, these parts of the film feel more Mondo than Morris—informative, sure, but still incredibly violent and maybe even a touch exploitative.
This is only heightened when looking at the second type of recreation in Häxan: stylized takes on magic ceremonies, pagan rituals, and demons tormenting the innocent. Unlike the historical reenactments, these scenes have zero intentions of existing in anything resembling reality. Instead, they go for broke with all-out shock, horror, and dark comedy while displaying increasingly absurd examples of witchcraft run amuck.
These segments have something of a cartoonish quality to them, like the beautiful child of Disney’s The Skeleton Dance and Georges Méliès’ darker trick films. Christensen makes the right choice to portray the demons as exaggerated caricatures instead of menacing beasts, often resembling goblins or chimera-like creatures rather than anything genuinely terrifying. Even Satan (played by Benjamin Christensen himself) doesn’t look very scary—he looks more like a gargoyle than anything else. This isn’t to say the production design is lacking—quite the opposite, in fact. I might even go as far as to say the production design of Häxan is some of the best the genre’s ever seen.
Benjamin Christensen clearly took a lot of pride in how Häxan looked. It shows even before we see any footage—cinematographer Johan Ankerstjerne and art/set designer Richard Louw get their own personal thanks from the man himself in the opening credits. And it’s clear why. Practically every shot in these fantasy segments of Häxan look like something I’d want to hang on my wall, from intense close-ups of witches brewing potions to jaw-dropping silhouetted shots of demons playing horns as people fly on broomsticks in the night sky.
Hell, even when the film chooses to leave the realm of recreations and just have a narrator talk (or intertitle?) over shots of dioramas, the crew still delivers. Yes, even the dioramas here are inexplicably detailed and beautiful, including one massive, mechanical structure that billows steam while showing little wooden demons pluck away at sinners like Jigoku by way of Jan Svankmajer. It’s that sort of incredible attention to detail and wild shots that make me very confident in saying that Häxan might be the most visually stunning silent film I’ve seen, perhaps only second to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Seriously, folks, it’s that good.
Honestly, if Häxan were just a series of shockingly pretty shots and insightful looks into the history of occultism, it’d be good enough. But it’s not. Because without spoiling too much, the documentary eventually gets off the rails, changing its point of focus and painting a target on the failings of modern mental health resources. Because despite its lurid scenes, Häxan is a sympathetic film, and its sympathies lie with those stigmatized and demonized by the church for reasons out of their control.
This is what makes Häxan so genius. This is what makes the two very different types of reconstructions work. Because while the bits with witches and demons and magic are the “horror” parts of Häxan, they’re also considerably more playful than the bits grounded in reality. Even their moments of violence—like the Devil whacking a priest over the head—are slapstick fare compared to the brutal tortures the accused women are subjugated to. On one side are the childish fears and excuses of the church, and on the other is the harsh reality of those that suffer for it.
It’s not a subtle creative decision, but apparently it was too much for contemporary critics, who were more shocked and horrified and offended by the cartoony ghouls and ghosts than they were the gruesome deaths of innocents. But like Night of the Hunter or Peeping Tom, time has been kind to Häxan. Nowadays, it’s rightfully considered both an impressive benchmark and a turning point in the history of documentaries and horror, as well as one of the silent era’s masterpieces in its own right. And if you ask me, I’d say it’s more than that: it just might be one of the greatest horror films of all time.Next: Crypt of Curiosities: DEVILMAN OVAs