Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Halloween 1921, or No Audio Audient: The Phantom Carriage

For Halloween this year, I traveled 95 years into the past, viewing both a movie about how they saw themselves then, and a movie about how we see them now.

The movie I knew would be from 1921 was The Phantom Carriage, my monthly viewing from my silent movie series No Audio Audient, which I almost didn't manage to get in during the month of October.

The movie I didn't know would have anything to do with 1921 was The Awakening, a 2011 period horror starring Rebecca Hall and Dominic West, which I chose as our Halloween night viewing.

Since only the first one was much good, and since the one that wasn't very good is kind of hijacking the other's spot on the blog, I'll spend most of my discussion on the silent Swedish film.

I'd tried to start The Phantom Carriage on October 30th at around 10:30 -- an ironic time to start watching it for a number of reasons, not least of which was that just last week, someone in my Flickcharters Facebook group specifically warned against starting a silent movie, and this silent movie in particular, at 10:30 at night. In a follow-up comment in that thread, anticipating my own upcoming viewing, I vowed to start it at 10:29 or earlier -- and lived up to that vow just barely, starting it at 10:28. In part because my previous night's sleep was fitful and almost nonexistent while camping, I was more compromised than usual in an attempt to start that late, and adding a final nail into my coffin was that neither version I found on YouTube had a score with it. It's kind of a miracle I made it the 40 minutes I did. With many silent films, that would have gotten me pretty close to the end, but this one was 106 minutes, leaving me well short. (I guess the last irony was that it was 10:30 on 10/30, which I'm only just now realizing.)

The lack of a score did help in my attempt to surreptitiously watch the rest of it the next day, Halloween day, a workday. It figured to be a slower day, a single workday sandwiched between a Sunday and a Tuesday holiday, and after lunch it finally became one. I ended up wrapping up the viewing at five minutes after five, and then headed straight home to take my kids out trick-or-treating. May not have been the ideal way to watch an atmospheric proto-horror movie, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

Actually, The Phantom Carriage isn't much of a horror movie at all -- which is not a bad thing. Sure, the basic premise is well within horror's broader wheelhouse, but if you're looking to tie this one in with a holiday, Halloween is not the first one you'd think of. In fact, Halloween might only be the third most relevant holiday with which to tie it in. I'll explain.

The story revolves around a legend (a real legend? not sure) that says that the last person to die in a calendar year is rewarded with/saddled with the responsibility of driving Death's carriage for the following year. I suppose it's actually the last sinner to die, since in the course of the story we see another December 31st death involving a godly person who is not a candidate for this task. But as this newly departed soul takes on the guise of Death, complete with shroud and scythe, he basically becomes the Grim Reaper for a year. The carriage is his mode of transportation. As the events of this story surround two consecutive New Year's Eves, New Year's Eve might be the most appropriately themed holiday.

But the story actually made me think of Christmas, as it very closely follows the themes and even story elements of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. The main character in the movie is David Holm, played by Victor Sjostrom, the film's director. David is a drunkard who has fallen out with his wife and two children, who spends his time in ill repute with his friends. When we catch up with him he's drinking in a graveyard on New Year's Eve, regaling his friends with the legend of the phantom carriage, a story another friend had told him the previous New Year's Eve. That friend coincidentally died that night, and little does David know at the time, but his friend has been driving Death's carriage during the intervening year. David's about to find out, though. During a fight that breaks out with his friends when they try to take him to see a dying Salvation Army nurse who cared for him the year before -- and contracted consumption from him, an injury added to the insult of his ingratitude to her -- David is killed. When his soul leaves his body, he meets his friend from the previous year, who tells him he will drive Death's carriage for the next year. But first he must atone for the terrible life he has led, and travel with this apparition to visit and look in on others he has hurt, including the nurse who has asked for him on her death bed, and his wife and kids. Without spoiling the ending, I can tell you that it too is very Dickensian and Carolian. (Hint: David may not be dead dead, after all.)

But Halloween comes in third, and there are certainly some creepy things in among a story that soon takes the form of a morality play. At the time the film was lauded for its use of special effects, namely, the ability to overlay film such that the characters who are dead appear as transparent, ghostly images. It was actually a double exposure of the same film in the camera, and it was pretty revolutionary at the time. The effects are seamless and also creepy. When we first see this ghostly carriage arrive with Death as its driver, you do get a chill, even 95 years after the movie was made. Tod Browning's Dracula is pretty scary only ten years later, and I'm sure there are other examples of early scary movies, but this is probably the oldest movie that has actually "scared" me. I wasn't quaking in my boots or anything, but the appearance of that carriage was the equivalent of a ghostly caress of a finger along my spine. I think the lateness of the hour (at least I got to see the carriage for the first time when it was nighttime) and the lack of a score only contributed to the sense of sepulchral dread.

The film goes on to use those special effects quite profoundly, allowing David and his companion to drift through walls as they go about looking in on the living. The single "scariest" moment is probably when the carriage drives over the crashing waves of the coastline, creating an additional sense of the impossible that is one of the very reasons we go to see movies. I don't know why I found that image as effective as I did in terms of being scary, but I did.

The movie does abandon being scary pretty early on, though, so the portion I watched at work was more like the other silent movies I've watched for this series, which don't benefit from a nighttime viewing. And though I did use the Wikipedia plot synopsis as a crutch in being sure I knew everything that was going on -- the movie uses several flashbacks as well, though does not always delineate them from the thrust of the present-tense story, leading to the sense that you weren't paying proper attention or had missed a title card -- I did get quite engrossed in this man's story of attempted redemption. You can really see why this film is also credited as being an inspiration to Sjostrom's fellow countryman, Ingmar Bergman. Most obvious among these inspirations are the religious themes The Phantom Carriage shares with Bergman's work, but even that crashing waves scene I mentioned earlier made me think of the similar setting for Antonius' chess game with Death in The Seventh Seal. I got a lot out of watching another Swedish director who influenced Bergman (Carl Theodor Dreyer) and I'd say I got a lot out of this as well.

Okay, now for a few words on the other half of our 1921 double feature, The Awakening.

This is a fairly typical setup for a ghost story. Rebecca Hall plays a woman who debunks ghost sightings in post-World War I England (1921 to be exact, as listed in a title that appears on screen), though of course she has her own haunted backstory that the events of the story start to tease out. She is hired to try to either locate definitive evidence of or disprove the existence of the ghost of a child who died in a boarding school for boys. Events that initially seem to have nothing to do with her are ultimately entwined with her own history. There are startle scares and ghostly images of boys in photographs. That kind of thing.

It wasn't completely unworthy, and I do admit to having a weakness for ghostly images of boys in photographs. But it was far more valuable to me as a coincidental viewing to incorporate into this blog post than as an effective way to scare myself on Halloween night.

But hey, at least it disproves my recently expressed concern that I am scared by even the lesser entries in the horror genre.

Hope you've got some good scares in your North American Halloween night viewing, which should still be ahead of you as I type this.

Oh, and for the November installment of No Audio Audient, the penultimate installment, I'm looking at Erich von Stroheim's Greed, if I can fit its epic running time into my schedule.

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