It’s New Year’s Eve and Salvation Army sister Edit (Astrid Holm) is lying on her death bed. There’s no hope for her, but the one person she wants to speak with before she passes on is David Holm (Victor Sjostrom), a poor, local drunk who is ringing in the new year by drinking with his friends in a cemetery. He tells his friends a story his friend Georges had told him about how the spirit of the last person to die on New Year’s Eve will spend the next year driving a carriage of death around the world, collecting the souls of those who die that year
When a Salvation Army worker finds David, he refuses to go see Edit, much to his friends’ dismay. His friends try to get him to make him go, but he dies after being hit on the head. David’s spirit is greeted by the spirit of his friend Georges (Tore Svenberg), who is driving the spirit carriage because he was the last one to pass away the previous New Years Eve.
Before taking over Georges’s job of driving the carriage, Georges warns David that driving the carriage is an absolutely horrible duty it is to have. Georges reminds David how he used to be married father of two children, before Georges had corrupted him with alcohol. Sister Edit had taken a particular interest in reforming David and spent much of the previous year trying to do so. Georges also reminds David how he could sometimes be violent, like when his wife asked him to stay away from the children to prevent them from getting sick and he breaks a door down with an axe.
Being reminded of what’s been going on in his life inspires David to make things right again. He wakes up in the graveyard, just in time to get his life back in order.
Whether you’re looking for a really eerie movie to watch on a fall night leading up to Halloween or for something different to watch on New Year’s Eve, The Phantom Carriage is a great choice. If you want something very atmospheric and creepy, this movie has it in spades. It’s creepy and atmospheric in a distinct way that only silent movies seem to be able to pull off. The plot may have some things in common with A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life, but The Phantom Carriage is completely unique unto itself. In fact, think of The Phantom Carriage as It’s a Wonderful Life if George Bailey were a total lowlife, if the movie had been produced away from the glossy Hollywood system, and if it lacked the sentimental touch of Frank Capra. The Phantom Carriage manages to be simultaneously familiar (at least when viewed with nearly a century’s worth of films that came out after its release in mind) and distinct.