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Friday, 8 January 2016

THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE (1921) / WAXWORKS (1924)

THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE (1921). Regarded as one of the formative films of Swedish cinema, this is a powerful and memorable morality ghost story in the vein of Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’. Directed by Victor Sjöström, who also adapted Selma Lagerlöf’s novel and poignantly plays the central role, it revolves around the quest for redemption against all the odds for a thoroughly nasty man who appears to be beyond saving (Sjöström’s David Holm).

On New Year’s Eve, Sister Edit, a saintly Salvation Army worker, is on her deathbed, urging her loved ones to find David, with whom we don’t yet understand a connection. He is a drunkard, sitting in a graveyard, regaling his bum friends with recollections of his friend Georges who died that same day last year. Georges had told him of the legend that anyone who dies on that day must inherit the role of Death’s phantom carriage driver – a spooky Grim Reaper complete with scythe – and ghoulishly gather the bodies of all the dead of the following year.  It turns out Georges had himself died on that day. Someone comes to fetch David to Sister Edit, but he refuses. The other vagrants protest at his rudeness, and in the ensuing scrap he dies by accident. With the aid of very effective double-exposure (used throughout for all ghostly effects), his spirit is raised as Georges appears, terrifying him with the truth of that story and his duty now to take over from him for the next year. David resists but Georges is adamant that he cannot escape atoning for the evil of his earthly life which it emerges Georges played a part in.  With the supernatural command of “Captive, take leave of thy prison”   Georges orders David’s soul to follow him to relive his hideous past…

David is shown, Scrooge-style, flashbacks to his happy old life with his wife Anna (Hilda Borgström) and children, before being tempted astray by Georges into drunkenness. Before leaving prison, the warden tries to shock David onto the straight and narrow by taking him to a cell holding his brother whose own drunken behaviour had led to him murdering a man. David vows to mend his ways, but in returning home finds his wife had left him with the children, unable to tolerate his abusiveness any longer. Something snaps in David, and from then on he becomes a doubly bitter figure, cutting his own Reaper-style swathe of vengeful, toxic hatred through Sweden in search of his family.

The next New Year’s Eve, David arrives at a newly opened mission where the kindly Edit gives him a bed for the night and selflessly repairs his coat in spite of the infection she will contract from it. On waking, he shows his needless cruelty by savagely ruining her stitching: “I like it like this”. We discover that in the town is David’s wife, still in hiding (they had met again at a Salvation Army meeting before David hadn’t recognised her). She reveals her identity to David. Sister Edit urges them to reconcile; however soon his self-loathing bitterness surfaces again. Anna locks him in the kitchen to protect her and the children while she hurriedly dresses them to flee, but he hacks down the door in his caged fury (reminiscent of Jack Nicholson in THE SHINING). She faints - yet he only revives her to gloat “It wasn’t so easy to escape from me this time”

Back in the present, Edit, now dying from contracting David’s consumption, pleads with Georges to allow her a few minutes more life to see the redemption of which she still believes he is capable. Tragically, she dies before this can happen. David is now about to be shown the most terrible repercussion of his appalling treatment, witnessing his hopeless wife about to poison herself and her children. David now sees how much he must atone for and begs desperately to God for help, prepared at last to sacrifice himself for the family his selfish life is about to ultimately destroy: “Sentence me to eternal night!” In that moment, Georges is content that his friend is genuinely repentant. David is returned prostrate to the graveyard ground from which he awakens startled but immediately races to save his wife from suicide. It is a moving ending as they hug and cry together in reconciliation, capping heartfelt performances by all the lead actors.

THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE’s influence, aside from its creepy and highly-effective double-exposure technique, was to inspire Ingmar Bergman who recalled its macabre portrayal of Death when featuring him as a character in his own THE SEVENTH SEAL in 1957.

WAXWORKS (1924). Another noteworthy German director of Expressionist films was Paul Leni. He made a three-story film (known in the genre as ‘portmanteau’) that was one of the first horror films with this structure (preceded by Lang’s DESTINY in 1921). Strictly speaking, WAXWORKS only features one tale firmly in the horror genre, but an air of oppressive sinister possibilities pervades the whole film.
The catalyst is a poet (future Hollywood star William Dieterle) who answers an advert placed by a circus waxwork museum owner and his daughter for someone to write flavoursome background stories about their figures. On display, we see the vivid statues of Spring-Heeled Jack (Jack the Ripper, played by genre star Werner Krauss), Czar Ivan the Terrible (equally famed Conrad Veidt) and as the splendidly greedy Caliph Harun al-Rashid is Emil Jannings who would also make his name in Hollywood.
When told that al-Rashid’s arm has come off, the poet immediately sets his creative juices flowing. He weaves the first story to compensate for this, essentially an Arabian Knights fairy tale of the corpulent, tyrannical al-Rashid trying to have his way with the local baker’s wife, a mean and flirtatious shrew, after his game of chess is spoilt by the smoke coming from the bakery. The poet places himself in the story as the baker, Assad, who cuts a dashing figure but is pussy-whipped by his wife into daring to steal the Caliph’s supposedly magical Wishing ring, not knowing of her secret planned assignation. While the Caliph locks himself and Assad’s wife in for some Turkish delight, Assad braves the palace security to murder who he thinks is the Caliph, steals the ring by slicing his arm off and flees from the guards.
He returns home to find the door locked. The Caliph and the wife were not expecting this - rather than face the music with regal dignity, the Caliph squeaks to the wife: My pond-lily, have you a hiding-place for a fat man?” She inserts him in the baker’s oven just as Assad splinters the door to get in. (Amusingly, he makes no mention of this odd homecoming treatment in his eager triumph to recount his success!). In come the guards to arrest Assad, who is unaware that the Caliph is here and had substituted a wax dummy likeness at home and kept his ring with him, when the wife opportunistically uses the ring to wish for the Caliph to magically return to life. This he does, soiled but alive. All is resolved happily like a pantomime ending by the Caliph appointing Assad to be his official baker.
It’s worth praising the wonderful, wild, stormy curves of the lavish scenery backdrops in both this and the next adventure. The theatrically painterly sets are pure Expressionism in their refusal to include straight lines, breaking all accepted rules of architecture. They suggest far-off fantasy escapism, off-setting any intrusive attempt at reality
A darker mood seeps in for the second story, that of Czar Ivan the Terrible, about whom the poet virtually runs out of unpleasant adjectives to describe this “blood-crazed monster on a throne”. Czar Ivan is a thoroughly despicable sadist who likes nothing better of an evening than taking his astrologer down to the Kremlin cellars to watch the death throes of his poisoned victims. Conrad Veidt, the eerie somnambulist Cesare with the electrifying stare in THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI is perfectly cast as the evil Ivan. To add spice to his voyeurism, he enjoys timing his prey’s final agonies with a sand hour-glass, with the victim’s name inscribed on the glass. His astrologer whispers a suspicion that maybe his poison-mixer is plotting to add the Czar’s own name to a future diminishing ‘glass half-empty’ (the mixer has taken pity on an innocent target). This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when the mixer hears the suggestion and pre-emptively does that very thing out of fear for his own life.
Ivan outdoes even this wickedness by swapping places with a nobleman whose daughter’s wedding he is due to attend. The hapless man is killed by an arrow. Unable to contain his vain-gloriousness, Czar Ivan cannot resist revealing his identity to the crowd: “The Czar is mightier than death!!!” he crows – dangerous hubris indeed. He takes the bride for himself amidst the groom’s protests but on the wedding night, any further hideous plans are scuppered by hearing that he has been poisoned. His fate is sealed when he discovers he can hold death at bay as long as he keeps turning over the hour-glass. We don’t know if the poison is real. It doesn’t matter. Possibly an even better punishment than that is the mind-unravelling obsession he now gives into for the rest of his days…
The closing, much slighter dénouement concerns Jack the Ripper. (Originally there were to be four parts but the finances ran out). Here, Leni cleverly has Krauss look non-descript rather than the fanciful top-hatted, surgical bag-equipped, caped fictitious monster so often portrayed lurching through improbable London pea-soup fog. The poet begins that Jack is wont to pounce “suddenly and silently upon his victims”. As if by macabre magic, Jack’s spirit spectrally stabs the poet. He clutches his chest…and then we return to normal to find all is well for him and his new lady.
WAXWORKS is ghoulish fun with welcome variety and pace as well as a spine-tingling atmosphere. Following the film, Paul Leni was invited to become a director at the illustrious Universal Studios Hollywood by Carl Laemmle, where in 1927 he would release THE CAT AND THE CANARY (in the same year that Fritz Lang would open his masterpiece METROPOLIS that would close the genre back in Germany). This was followed by THE MAN WHO LAUGHS before Leni sadly died of sepsis in 1929 at the youthful age of 44.



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