Sunday, June 26, 2011

150 Days of Halloween: The Phantom Carriage and Dead of Night

Apparently one movie and one review a day is hard to manage, what with life's vagaries. However, I made a schedule and I am determined to stick by it, even if it means double reviews like the this. The two movies in question are the 1921 Swedish romantic horror movie, The Phantom Carriage. This was the first silent film of the list, and other silent films now have a great deal to live up to. The other was Dead of Night, a series of horror vignettes by the British Ealing company, which is best known for its comedy classics produced following WWII.

First up is The Phantom Carriage, and just to set the tone a bit for you, I loved this movie. Its the best Swedish movie I have yet to see, and its even the best silent film I have yet to see, with a rich and involved narrative uncommon for the time, and the wonderfully expressive acting that was. This ninety (90!) year old movie, which has held up remarkably well, was paired with a distinctly modern soundtrack produced by KTL. At first I was sad that it was the only version I could find, but after watching the movie with this music pairing, I am glad its the version I found. The soundtrack was immensely effective at creating a haunting mood.
Its based on a novel written ten years prior to the film.
This movie is a morality tale at its core, like A Christmas Carol, but instead of being about a man bitter for bitter's sake and often just focusing on Christmas' role, its about humanity. Its a tale about the faults in us all, the potential we each have to fall off the path and become lost souls. It is also about the redemptive qualities in us all, and the power we have to help out fellow man. By giving the main character a distinctly human flaw, alcoholism as opposed to just being a dick, it grants the film great power in affecting its message.

The movie opens with a young women on her deathbed, consumption has been taking its toll on her for a year now, and she doesn't have much time left in this world. In between fits of spasm inducing coughs, she begs for those around her to bring David Holm to her bedside. Everyone looks uncomfortable and concerned, but after much pleading, they consent and begin the search. We soon understand why, the man is a filthy drunk spending his New Years eve with others addicted to the bottle among the dead in a cemetery. In the spirit of the setting and the time, he tells those around him a tale.
He's the drunk on the right.
He once had a friend who was always jolly, the same man who incidentally introduced him to the joys of drinking. This friends spirits were high everyday of the year but one, the day of New Years Eve, and once explained why that was. He was once told a tale, one he believes with all his heart, about the specter of death. You see, Death just oversees the whole operation, he doesn't collect the dead himself. Instead, the last soul to be reaped in any given year will be doomed to drive deaths carriage and collect those who have lost their lives. So, fearing such a fate, he becomes withdrawn and scared every New Years eve.

His drunken friends give a shudder and fretfully glance at the clock to see its almost midnight, at which point David takes a gulp of his wine and tells them the friend died last New Years eve, of all nights. Its at this point that someone finally finds the man and demands he come to Sister Edit's death bed, to which he bitterly refuses. The man soon gives a sad sigh and leaves the drunks to their cemetery.
The titular carriage.
This doesn't sit well with the other drunks however, who soon demand that he heed the call of the dying. Denying them, a fight soon breaks out between the once happy inebriates. The confrotnation comes to a head when a bottle gets smashed over David's head, and fearing he has died just as the clock struck midnight, they flee the scene. Its at this point that his old friend arrives atop a ghostly carriage to inform him of his new duty as Deaths driver, but not before he shows David the extent of his sins in the living world.

From here on out the movie follows the two as they silently witness events from David's past, from his initial fall, various failed attempts to clean up, and the fact that his own callous disregard for others caused Sister Edit's consumption. We watch his slow transformation in these flashbacks from loving father to a broken and bitter man driven only by a desire to watch others fall like he has. While we watch that happen in the past, we watch the opposite happen to his ghostly shade, we see him slowly understand the harm he has caused, and slowly we see his sorrow and desire to repent. These two parallel arcs for a single character happening in one narrative is masterfully done, and for it to happen in a silent movie is incredible. You barely get such great structure and story in modern movies, and this people did it without sound, color, and with the limitations of filming equipment at the time. Not to mention the impressive effects of the film.
His friend, now Death's driver, shows him his life in grim detail.
The double exposure special effect is used to great effect, and better then I have ever seen it. The ghostly apparitions will be covered by elements or characters in the foreground while still allowing the background to be seen through their bodies. For a movie made in 1921 this is an amazing feat, and it allows for incredible scenes, such as death's carriage riding between crashing waves at the scene of a capsized boat. Death's driver is then seen to climb from the carriage, down between the swells and waves, to collect a soul on the sea floor. Its beautifully done, and all the while the soundtrack by KTL is creating a truly haunting feeling that pairs so naturally with the ghostly nature of the film.

I don't have enough praise to heap on this movie, its that good, it is beyond rare for a movie to age even 10 years gracefully, the fact that this one remains powerful and so good after 90 is hard to even believe. You may be wondering why I was so detailed with the opening of the film, and then trailed off into vagueness for the middle and end. The opening really sets the tone of the movie, showing us a present state to the world before stories and flashbacks change everything up on us and take everyone for a ride. I want you to have that set up, and my various peeks into why this movie was as well liked as it was, in the hopes it may drive you to seek it out. Its a beautiful moving portrait of everything we are capable as people, the story is moving and masterfully told, and everyone deserves to see this with fresh eyes. If you like movies, then you owe it to yourself to see it.
Two shades begin to talk about life.
Now for Dead of Night, a decidedly different experience. Made in 1945, this movie is comprised of a series of related stories being told by guests in a house. The stories are all about encounters with the supernatural, be they ghosts, premonitions, or possession. These stories are all told to one character in particular who is convinced he has dreamed his arrival at the house, and that in the dream terrible things will happen. The other characters tell their owns stories, both as a means of agreeing with him that it could be possible he foresaw the future as well as to comfort him that nothing bad will happen.

This makes it hard to judge the movie as a whole, as each story told within the greater story is so distinct. Some of the stories, like the slow tension building story of a man who sees a totally different room on the other side of a mirror that slowly consumes him, or the tale of an unhinged ventriloquist rules by his dummy really stand out as great segments. Some of the others, meanwhile, are not as strong, such as the story of a girl playing hide and seek and finding a ghost alone in a room.
See that? Apparently critics got up and hugged the movie.
On the whole their are more good segments then bad, and they all flow nicely into the main story. The story tellers react and change with each telling, some getting more concerned and some calming down as time passes. All the while portents from the mans dream slowly come to pass, and sometimes fail to thanks to a story that was told, easing his concerns some. This mechanic does wonders to create tension in the main narrative, all of these tales being told leaves you wondering when everything will finally fall apart in that house.

As for horror, not many segments really bring the scares, the dummy sequence does well, but when have you seen a dummy that didn't creep you out? Most people in my age bracket also have the benefit of Are You Afraid of the Dark's dummy episode, which was inspired by this movie, having seeded the fear of dummys in us years ago. Likewise the fear of mirrors is a natural choice, everyone has caught sight of something in a mirror in a dimly lit room once in their lives, this will always leave a lingering doubt.
Any sane person fears a dummy just a bit.
I suppose that's what this movie does well. Nothing is going to jump out at you, nor are any of the scenes gruesome in anyway. The stories though, they are all rooted in very common and basic fears and superstitions. Dreams that seen to predict tragedy, perceived supernatural warnings that avert disaster, ghosts, mirrors, and living puppets. The movie doesn't need to go out of its way, these are already in the back of your mind.

Still though, I don't feel its aged as gracefully as the other movie reviewed in this post, segments could have been much more imposing and left lingering fears that would color the main narrative. I just wanted more out of it, for it to be more creepy and frightening then just merely entertaining. The movie is still good, make no mistake, but it isn't truly frightening, and I sadly never felt much in the way of tension. Still worth checking out, because ultimately this movies concepts have gone on to inspire many more movies after it, some of which took the ideas and really ran with them to great effect.
"Watch these movies, or I'll let the dummy eat your eyes."
Tomorrow we jump forward in time 30 years to 1975, and move from Britain to its former colony of Australia for Picnic at Hanging Rock. As always, check out The 150 Days of Halloween schedule for past reviews and future movie dates.