“It is no ordinary driver who holds the reigns, for he’s in the service of a strict master named Death. For him, a single night is as long as 100 years on Earth. Night and day, he must carry out his master’s business.”
Victor Sjöström’s 1921 silent film, The Phantom Carriage , might occur over multiple New Year’s eves. Yet it exists in the same space as other Dickensian holiday tales like A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life . It centers on one despicable man forced to take a hard look at himself and his life when he’s poised to become Death’s newest carriage driver.
In addition to writing and directing, Sjöström stars as lead David Holm, an unlikable alcoholic that’s abusive toward his wife and seems far too eager to spread his tuberculosis to others. He can’t even be bothered to answer a dying woman’s request to speak with him at her deathbed. A fight breaks out, and David takes a blow to the head on New Year’s Even that brings Death’s carriage to collect him.
It’s driven by deceased buddy George (Tore Svennberg), who once told David a story about how the carriage driver is always the last person to die on New Year’s Eve, and that he must serve for the next year collecting the souls of those who die. It doesn’t sound so bad until the reveal that the job drags on, feeling as long as a century for Death’s servant. As the carriage picks up bodies from all over, land and water, George also acts as a confrontational guide through David’s life told in four lengthy and nonlinear flashbacks.
Sjöström adapted the 1912 novel Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! ( Körkarlen ) by Nobel Prize-winning author Selma Lagerlöf. His film was released on New Year’s Day in 1921, though it didn’t come stateside until a year later under The Stroke of Midnight . The adaptation arriving so close on the heels of the novel likely meant audiences familiar with the material had an easier time piecing together the chronology of David’s flashbacks.
The stark allegory for second chances is made even more impactful by the film’s special effects. Superimposition and double exposure gave the translucent quality to the phantom carriage and its ghostly wards. It makes the images of David’s soul stepping out of his body so haunting. It’s a visual effects breakthrough that holds up remarkably well even a century later.
The Phantom Carriage isn’t horror in the conventional sense; it’s more interested in using supernatural intervention to scare David straight than scare its audience. But its Gothic imagery and the spectral quality to Death’s carriage feels closer to horror. David’s story features a much sharper character arc than some of his holiday contemporaries, too. Ebenezer Scrooge and George Bailey follow similar paths for redemption, but David Holm nearly murders his wife with an ax in a drunken fit. She comes away unharmed, but Sister Edit (Astrid Holm) isn’t as lucky; she contracts Tuberculosis from David.
The message is the same; it’s never too late to course correct and atone for past sins, and there’s no time like the holidays to start. New Year’s Day is the herald of fresh starts, after all. Sjöström isn’t interested in casting David in a heroic or sympathetic light, and it’s a choice made even bolder that the filmmaker portrays his lead, too. He gives thematic and emotional depth through bold composition and artistry, and an unflinching eye, making The Phantom Carriage an influential holiday masterpiece.