Snake River’s score brings the Swedish cinema classic The Phantom Carriage to life
Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo | Dec. 16, 2021
The Phantom Carriage
According to some uplifting Swedish legend, the last person to die on New Year’s Eve is doomed to take the reins of death’s carriage for a full year. Maybe that sounded rough when The Phantom Carriage came out in 1921. But a century later, a little indentured servitude to the Grim Reaper doesn’t sound so bad compared to what a lot of people do for a living. I mean, tornado-magnet Amazon warehouses? Anti-union breakfast cereal sweatshops? There’s something to be said for dead.
Anyhoo, to get to the point: just like Die Hard is a Christmas movie in certain households (“Now I have a machine gun, HO-HO-HO”), Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage is a New Year’s staple for the Criterion Collection crowd. And this holiday season Sjöström’s silent film gets the live score treatment courtesy of Saskatchewan band Snake River. The group, formed by Christopher Sleightholm with John De Gennaro, Dustin Gamracy, Whistling’ Jeff M and Amber Pb — performs two shows in Regina Dec. 29 and 30 (already sold out, unfortunately) and one show in Saskatoon Dec. 31.
Besides the obvious reasons — the New Year connection, the film’s 100-year anniversary — the group picked The Phantom Carriage because it’s a non-linear narrative that hopscotches through time. “There’s a lyrical quality to it and that’s appealing to me as a songwriter,” says Sleightholm. “When you’re writing a song, you’re not always writing a story but thoughts that drift and blend into one another.”
There’s another way the Swedish classic is a fit for Snake River. As fans know, the band’s songs are set in the fictitious town of Snake River Mountain and feature a collection of recurring characters along with the biggest character of all — the town itself.
“We saw a correlation between that and The Phantom Carriage,” says Sleightholm. “The town, the empty streets, the deserted graveyard… it’s like a secondary character.”
The band started working on the score last September. It was a big task. Unlike most silent films that have one extended act and rarely last more than an hour, The Phantom Carriage has 13 chapters and is 107 minutes long. The band gave each chapter its own tune, with callbacks linked to each main character.
Snake River’s standard setup — two guitars, bass, drums — adds a viola and keyboards. But no vocals whatsoever. Otherwise, Snake River fans are likely to recognize the band’s traditional sound. As Sleightholm puts it: “Our music can get into dark places but at the end of the day it has a more upbeat kind of feel.”
While Sleightholm hopes to continue writing for the screen, The Phantom Carriage was conceived as a one-off. That said, Snake River will record the Regina shows for a live album out at a later date.
Death Before Bergman
One does not simply ride The Phantom Carriage. Forget that it was made a century ago — the film is more narratively sophisticated than most Hollywood movies and has a lot more oomph.
Based on a novel by Selma Lagerlöf (the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature), The Phantom Carriage is about David Holm (director Victor Sjöström himself), an abusive alcoholic who has alienated everyone but a dying Salvation Army sister. The nun believes David can be redeemed, even though everything about him suggests that to be doubtful.
The Phantom Carriage is told through flashbacks with little info about when events take place or how the characters fit into the story. However, once you get the gist of the plot it’s narratively satisfying: Sjöström’s seemingly random order of scenes, it turns out, has been carefully calibrated to turbocharge the film’s emotional punch.
Swedish master Ingmar Bergman was so high on The Phantom Carriage he frequently referenced the film in his own work, particularly Wild Strawberries, in which he hired Sjöström to play the lead and used the older film’s conceptualizations of death and transition. As well, the idea of the grim reaper as a working stiff would famously return in The Seventh Seal.
Bergman watched The Phantom Carriage once a year, alone or in the company of young, impressionable minds. Another powerhouse of cinema, Charlie Chaplin, described Sjöström’s movie as “the best ever made.”
Bergman and Chaplin — if you’re looking for a film endorsement, it’s hard to do better than those two.