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The Revenant Review

Horror Film History, Analysis, and Reviews

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1921

Movie Review – The Phantom Carriage (1921)

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Adapted from the novel Körkarlen (1912) by Nobel prize-winning Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf, The Phantom Carriage (1921) is a Swedish fantasy-horror which had a profound influence upon subsequent filmmakers – the axe-chopping sequence would go on to influence Stanley Kubrick in The Shining (1980) and Ingmar Bergman considered the movie a prime inspiration and even cast the film’s director, Victor Sjöström, in his 1957 Wild Strawberries, considered one of Bergman’s best films. Sjöström had previously made outdoor dramas, and both the content and the studio-bound approach to the filming of this piece, necessary due to the complicated special effects shots and desired deep focus, was a significant departure for the director – and one which paid off in spades.

Appropriately released on New Year’s Day in 1921, the plot revolves around a rotten drunkard named David Holm who is killed at midnight on New Year’s Eve, now condemned to become Death’s servant. For a year he must drive a ghostly horse-drawn carriage, collecting the souls of the damned. However, the previous driver for whom he is taking over was an old drinking buddy who helped lead him astray, and, like Marley to Scrooge, Holm is shown the havoc and sorrow his actions have caused and all the opportunities for redemption he dismissed.

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Sjöström, who plays Holm, gives an excellent naturalistic performance. He easily inhabits the role as do the other cast members. There’s very little of that broad overacting often found in silent films. Insight into the director’s personal history may provide deeper understanding of both his approach and his profoundly convincing, touching portrayal. As Paul Mayersberg, in his Criterion essay, writes of the performance:

“Coming from the theater, Sjöström nonetheless rejected traditional stage acting as detrimental to films. He wanted another style of performance since the dialogue could not be heard, concentrating on face, movements, and gestures. His own performance in The Phantom Carriage avoids melodrama by admitting David’s inner confusion, which simultaneously erupts into violence. His outward realism explores inner states. Some of the intertitles are actually voice-over, as he talks to himself…

In 1881, as a small child, Sjöström went to America with his father, Olaf, and mother, Maria Elizabeth, to whom he was devoted. Tragically, she died when he was seven… Olaf was a womanizer, twice bankrupt, and a born-again Christian. In 1893, Victor was returned to Sweden to live with his aunt… All his life, Sjöström feared becoming like his father, whom he closely resembled physically… Perhaps his rendering of David’s alcoholism derived from the tensions in Sjöström’s relationship with his father. His performance is so realistically and subtly detailed that it may have come from precise memories, a ghostly reincarnation of his father.”

Perhaps due also to his father’s religiosity, Sjöström is careful to avoid overtly religious moralizing and divine intervention. His intercessor is his old friend, the current Death’s assistant. Despite this, the film was re-cut when released in America to appear more as a Christian morality tale. There nevertheless remains a diabolical element, for

The Phantom Carriage is at root a Faustian tale, with drink as the devil. If the film were the work of a Jansenist Catholic like Robert Bresson, David’s suffering would be a struggle with God’s design for him, alcohol being the mysterious presence of the divine in his bloodstream, and would probably end in suicide. But for Sjöström, God helps those who help themselves. There is an extraordinary moment when David’s wife faints out of fear at his ax attack and he fetches her a cup of water, only to berate her violently when she recovers consciousness. Here is a glimpse not of God but of a good man within a bad man. Sjöström the actor marvelously conveys the brutish, the melancholy, the sarcastic, and the reflective aspects of his character… Sjöström’s David is a study of tortured self-humiliation.”

The cinematography is beautiful and wonderfully lit, again thanks to the director’s choice in filming in a studio (the story’s author, Lagerlöf, had come into conflict with him when she originally insisted on filming in the town where the tale was set). Some scenes are truly haunting, such as that of Death’s servant retrieving the soul of a drowned man from beneath the murky sea. Likewise, the costumes are rich and the sets are appropriately claustrophobic. Sjöström’s directing is confident and the editing moves the story along smoothly.

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The script is tight and sophisticated, even employing flashbacks within flashbacks, which was an advanced storytelling technique for the time. The extensive special effects of the semi-transparent ghosts are particularly impressive when one considers that the double exposures were done in-camera, which had to be hand-cranked at exactly the same speed so as to appear natural.

Though the ghostly carriage is a spooky sight, the actual horror of the film lies in the actions of the living. Holm is at times unstable and needlessly cruel, at one point flicking his sleeping daughter on the nose just for drunken laughs. Yet it is in the final ten minutes that things get really dark, and I wasn’t at all sure how far Sjöström was willing to push the drama, creating a genuine sense of tension and emotional turmoil. Expectedly, his performance here is wonderful.

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The actress, Astrid Holm, who plays the Salvation Army do-gooder, Sister Edit, would star in Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922) the following year. (As a few points of random observation, Holm is a near dead-ringer for Jena Malone; also, Salvation Army women in 1920s Sweden apparently wore hats with the word “SLUM” on them.)

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The Phantom Carriage is an excellent example of silent cinema, both within the horror genre and beyond, and its prayerful message is a sober meditation on our inevitable deaths: “Lord, please let my soul come to maturity before it is reaped.”

Grade: A

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Movie Review – Destiny (1921)

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – Destiny (1921)

Fritz Lang’s Destiny (1921) can easily be counted among the most influential films of all time. It inspired both Alfred Hitchcock and Luis Bunuel to enter filmmaking, both of whom would make important contributions to the horror genre, and one cannot ignore its clear influence on Ingmar Bergman’s brilliant The Seventh Seal (1957).

Set in the early nineteenth century, Destiny is a dark fantasy. The story follows a young woman who’s fiancé has been taken by Death and is provided a chance to save him – she will have three opportunities to save a life and if she can save but one, her lover will be released. This provides a frame story and three vignettes which take place in fantastical time periods, namely an Arabian Nights-like Persia, the Renaissance, and ancient China, with the inter-titles changing with each setting. The girl, her amorous man, and Death play roles in each, the former two always as star-crossed lovers.

The film is richly imaginative and, for the most part, very well written, providing a fairytale contemplation on the inevitability of death. At one point a character remarks, as if in summary, “How close people often are to death, without a premonition. They believe eternity is theirs – and don’t even survive the roses they play with.” And yet we battle against it. Even those characters who profess to be weary of life and wish an end to it, when confronted with the opportunity to do so, run screaming to preserve their last remaining breaths.

The set designs, too, are stunning and a touch whimsical. Death is depicted by Bernhard Goetzke, whose tall, gaunt figure is perfect for the role. Death is wary of his labor but is stark and unrelenting in the performance of his duty. At one point we see him snuff out a candle of life only to realize it was that of a child. S.S. Prawer wrote in 1980 of one effective component about which I fully agree:

“One film above all others has been able to show convincingly a supernatural enclave, a realm of otherworldly terror and awe inserted into our familiar world. The film which Fritz Lang called Der müde Tod [meaning Tired Death] and which in English is more generally known as Destiny features one of the most haunting sets in the history of cinema: a Palace of Death whose huge sombre wall and mysterious Hall of Lights has only to be seen once to be seared for ever into our memory. Except for Bernhard Goetzke’s quietly impressive performance as Death, however, nothing in the rest of the work lives up to the visual terrors and delights of this grand architectural conception” (Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror, pg. 77)

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The young heroine is played by Lil Dagover, and her character is determined and fearless, seeking to save the man for a welcomed departure from traditional storytelling. She is challenged in moral ways as well, particularly in one wonderful scene involving her, Death, and a baby in a burning hospital. Will she sacrifice the infant to Death in exchange for her lover?

Only one sequence has not aged well, that being the one set in ancient China. The film changes tone here to one of comical farce and the depiction of Asians is about as cringe-worthy to modern viewers as Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi is in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Had Lang decided to keep the dark tone throughout the whole movie it would have elevated this otherwise darkly compelling tale into a more effectively haunting experience.

The film was poorly received in Germany upon its release. Critics accused it of not being ‘German’ enough. However, it was met with great enthusiasm in other countries. Douglas Fairbanks bought the American rights and delayed its release so he could study and copy the effects of the Persian sequence for his 1924 Thief of Baghdad.

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Fritz Lang, born in Vienna in 1890, ran away from home at the age of 21, dissatisfied with the career path his wealthy father had chosen for him, to study art in Paris and Munich. In WWI he quickly rose in rank through distinguished bravery, being wounded four times and temporarily blinded. It was during his yearlong hospitalization in Vienna in 1916 that he began to write and sell many of his stories and screenplays.

In 1919 he married Lisa Rosenthal and a year later began collaborating with female screenwriter Thea von Harbou, with whom he wrote Destiny. He also began an affair with von Harbou, and one night Rosenthal walked in on the two making love on their couch. Soon police were called to the house and found Rosenthal’s body in the bathtub with a bullet hole between her breasts. The gun used was Lang’s revolver. Producer Erich Pommer and cameraman Karl Freund were called to the apartment to support Lang, and the director used his power to cover up his wife’s supposed suicide. For his part, Freund suspected Lang of murdering Rosenthal. In 1922 Lang and von Harbou were married. (This account is taken from Steve Haberman’s Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Horror Film.)

Whatever his guilt, Lang would of course go on to make history and become the most powerful director in Weimar Republic cinema. In addition to making Metropolis (1927), he also would make the masterful M (1931), his first “talkie,” starring Peter Lorre, considered the first serial killer movie and one I cannot recommend highly enough. It was Lang’s personal favorite. As the Nazis rose to power he knew it was time to leave. Von Harbou had developed Nazi sympathies and, even though he was raised Catholic, his Jewish heritage would make him a target. He immigrated to America and would continue making films into the 1960s, though none had the impact that his Weimar Republic era films had.

Lil Dagover, Destiny’s star, had appeared in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) the year before and would go on to a long career, sticking to German films after the advent of “talkies.” Though she remained apolitical, she was known to be a favorite actress of Hitler and dined with him on occasion, though after the war she would appear in anti-Nazi films.

Destiny is undeniably imaginative and always interesting. It’s easy to see why this film inspired so many young filmmakers.

Grade: B-

Movie Review – The Haunted Castle (1921)

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – The Haunted Castle (1921)

A year before making the timeless Nosferatu (1922), F.W. Murnau created the minor whodunit thriller The Haunted Castle (1921), a screenplay by Carl Mayer. The English title is deceiving as there is no haunting to speak of. Instead, the chamber-drama surrounds a group of aristocrats who have gathered at an estate to hunt but find themselves shut in due to persistent storms. An uninvited guest arrives – a local Count who many believe murdered his brother a few years before but avoided conviction. To make matters more uncomfortable, due to arrive also is his brother’s widow and her new husband, who stay only because an old friend, a priest, is going to be arriving from Rome. Soon after his arrival the priest disappears and all fingers point to the Count.

The sets are richly decorated and Murnau makes use of some nice location shots, and the ending actually has a pretty nice twist. However, most of the film is plodding and the overall direction is fairly rudimentary, having none of the flair or drama Murnau would evoke in later films. Despite being made in German Expressionism’s heyday, there is no evidence of that revolutionary movement here.

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F.W. Murnau would of course go on to great things afterward. If he had only then made Nosferatu his remembrance would be guaranteed, but he would make several other critically acclaimed classics of the era, including The Last Laugh (1924), Faust (1926), and his American romantic masterwork Sunrise (1927).

Unfortunately, Murnau would die in 1931 at the age of 42 from injuries suffered in a car accident while driving in California on the Pacific Coast Highway. For reasons not entirely known but saucily speculated upon, Murnau allowed a handsome Filipino teenager named Garcia Stevenson to chauffeur his Packard limo. Driving erratically, Stevenson crashed into an electric pole and while he was uninjured, Murnau cracked his head open. Rumors soon spread that Murnau had been performing fellatio on the young man while he was driving. Because of the scandalous nature of his death, very few people attended his funeral. However, Greta Garbo (who biographers also believe was bisexual), an admirer of Murnau, did attend and even had a death-mask made of the late, great director. Curiously, in 2015 his grave would be broken into and his skull stolen in what authorities believed (due to the presence of wax residue) was part of an occult ceremony.

Grade: C-

Movie Review – The Mechanical Man (1921)

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – The Mechanical Man (1921)

Italy’s The Mechanical Man (1921), directed by André Deed, is a mix of science-fiction, horror, and comedy. It tells of a scientist who creates a large robot that is incredibly strong and fast, and is controlled remotely via a series of cranks, wheels, and switches. The scientist is killed and his invention commandeered by a criminal mastermind, a woman named Mado, who uses his creation to burst through doors, steal safes, and wreak general havoc. The scientist’s brother creates another robot to battle it, and there is a final showdown inside an immense opera house.

Unfortunately, anyone who has not done prior research might be forgiven for missing plot points, as only 26 minutes of film remains, which originally ran over an hour. Most of the lost footage encompasses the beginning sequences and cast titles, so it is not always clear watching who some of the characters are. Nevertheless, the present footage hints at a fun movie filled with sight gags, robot destruction, and pulp-like villainy.

Yet as it is, only a select few of genre completionists today will find reason to watch this curio, or at least what’s left of it.

Grade: D

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