Whilst I’ve never had the chance to really brush up on my silent film knowledge, I feel like I know enough about this era of filmmaking to articulate which aspects I like and dislike. Nuance and expressive emotion aren’t something silent films can articulate clearly, so overacting in a way that feels like it conveys the serious tones of a script are put in its place instead. I like the near pantomime performances at times, The Last Laugh is a key example of this, a film so infatuated with its leading man that it relies on Emil Jannings’ visual cues to tell its story in a convincing enough manner. It works well, but nuance is possible and plausible in other ventures of the silent era, I’m just not convinced by The Phantom Carriage and its utilisation of such methods.
I can appreciate the direction and talent the crew have; their efforts go wasted on a story that doesn’t interest me in the slightest though. The Phantom Carriage is a remnant of history, an important one, but not one that I found any interest in in the slightest. No captivating moment or revolutionary piece of story that could hold my attention, it was all rather boring. I appreciate this film more than I enjoyed it, it laid the foundations for greater films to come, but Victor Sjöström’s work is a lifeless affair. It covers the same ground over and over again, driving what few points it has into the ground with basic observations of its littered cast.
Visual effects are in abundance here, most of them utilised for the benefit of technical mastery rather than plot advancement. It’s a shame, since the faded, opaque dead linger the streets with a striking conviction, there are moments where these effects take centre stage. David Holm (Victor Sjöström) is a character that lacks the writing strength to really bring anything amazing together, but the performance is solid. The absence of an interesting story is the real killer here, but a handful of inspired scenes throughout keeps the film going as best it can. A scene late into the film seems like the clear inspiration for The Shining, but aside from The Phantom Carriage’s ability to influence films generations beyond its release, there’s little in the way of actual interest in its story.
Although the technical merits on display are truly marvellous, they’re not all that compelling. No real hook for the audience to wholly invest themselves here. A well-orchestrated soundtrack from Mattie Bye is simply not enough, and The Phantom Carriage fails to hold a candle to other fascinating silent-era films. I can appreciate the work of the craftsman, but it does little to invigorate or pool emotions. However, the framing, shot composition and early special effects are definitely something to marvel at. A must-see for those who are wholly intent on seeing the history of film with their own eyes, but prepare yourself for the same few plot points to be told again, and again, and again.