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Film / The Phantom Carriage

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The Phantom Carriage (Swedish: Körkarlen, literally "The Wagoner") is a 1921 Swedish Silent Movie directed by and starring Victor Sjöström, alongside Hilda Borgström, Tore Svennberg and Astrid Holm. It is based on the novel Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! (Körkarlen; 1912), by Nobel prize-winning Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf.

The story retells an old Swedish folk tale that states the last man to die just before the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve is doomed to drive the Phantom Carriage for the following year collecting all of the spirits of the dead. When David Holm proves to be that man, he learns of the selfish life he has led and how it has impacted the people around him.

The movie has been remade twice; a French version in 1939 and another Swedish version in 1958.


This film provides examples of:

  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Sister Edit has a crush on bad boy David.
  • Axe Before Entering: David breaks down a door with an axe to get at his cowering family. Notably, the scene was homaged almost frame-by-frame by Stanley Kubrick for The Shining.
  • Bargain with Heaven: Sister Edit begs Death not to take her before she's had a chance to see that David has changed. The second she sees him truly repentant, she dies, and Georges implies that the angels will be along to fetch her as soon as they leave.
  • Comforting Comforter: Sister Edit covers David with a blanket while he is sleeping at the sanctuary.
  • Cross-Cultural Kerfluffle: The The End title card reads "Slut". (It means "End" in Swedish.) For English-speaking viewers, this can definitely cause some Mood Whiplash after the serious tone of the ending.
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  • Discovering Your Own Dead Body: Ghost David looks in horror at his dead body before the grim reaper takes him in.
  • Faints in Shock: The mother passes out when her husband breaks into the bathroom. Justified in that she's been shown to be deeply traumatized by years of abuse and starvation.
  • Flashback Within a Flashback: There are three narrative layers. The main story surrounding Sister Edit and David Holm, the story David Holm tells his two follow drunkards in the cemetery about Georges, and within that frame there's Georges' tale about The Grim Reaper.
  • Flatline Plotline: David dies and becomes an observer of his misdoings in life which makes him repent and change his bad ways.
  • Grievous Bottley Harm: David dies from a bottle blow to his head.
  • The Grim Reaper: The driver of the phantom carriage who is recast at the turn of each year. The character is a typical depiction with a Black Cloak and a sickle.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Everyone seems to have TB, but only Edit is actively dying from it.
  • Interrupted Suicide: What finally snaps David into action is finding out that his wife is about to commit suicide and take their children with her. He makes it back just in time.
  • Iris Out: The film opens with an Iris In effect.
  • Key Under the Doormat: When David comes home after his release from prison and finds the door locked, he remembers the key under the doormat.
  • Kick the Dog: That's all David can do when being drunk. His wife and kids suffer badly from it.
  • Mood Lighting: Exterior shots have a blue tint while interior shots have a sepia tint.
  • Manly Tears: It's David breaking down in tears that convinces his wife that he's actually trying to change.
  • My Greatest Failure: Edit is wracked by guilt for convincing an abused woman to take her husband back, thinking it would make him change, and can't die before she puts it right.
  • New Year Has Come: It can be an inconvenient time to die.
  • Relieving the Reaper: The last person to die in a given year is chosen to become the reaper for the year to come. Our protagonist David Holm nearly becomes that person.
  • Shipper on Deck: Sister Edit brings David and his wife back together, even though she harbors feelings for him.
  • Title Card: Title cards are used extensively to tell the story.
  • Toxic Friend Influence: Georges remembers how he led David into a life of drinking and debauchery, luring David away from his family.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: After Sister Edit spends a night mending his jacket, David rips his jacket to pieces while laughing at Edit.
  • When the Clock Strikes Twelve: In accordance with the legend, the last sinner to die on the turn of the New Year becomes the soul collector, gathering souls in his coach.
  • Yet Another Christmas Carol: To the extent that Lagerlöf's working title for the novel was My Christmas Carol.