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In the 1920s and early 30s in the realm of mystery/horror/comedies
Benjamin Christensen may have been the greatest director working in
them. He directed a trilogy of mystery/horror films that not only
define the genre, but his talents.
Paul Leni and Roland West may have been the only directors as talented as him working on these types of films at the time, but in terms of the quality of the image, the composition, the framing and the mise-en-scene, he surpasses even them. Each had their own specialty, though; Leni-set design; West-special camera effects.
His previous film, 'The Haunted House' (1928) was at the time hailed as his best of these. It may be the greatest 'lost' horror film in terms of artistic merit. He then made 'Footprints' and 'House of Horror' in 1929. Only 'Footprints' seems to have survived to this day.
The only version of this film that seems to be available is an Italian title-carded version of which I viewed a copy. Luckily for me, I had someone translating Italian for me (my sister) so I could figure out what was going on. I still felt like I was missing something, so I watched it again.
Upon second viewing, and having known the plot, I was able to view the real story of this film - the movement of images, the magnificent cutting and the chiaroscuro - still excellent in this worn print. This film actually seems to be about movement rather than a plot. The camera does not move much, but it does in key spots. The interplay and blocking of the characters is outstanding and is seamlessly edited to create a truly visceral experience.
The constant parade of gorillas, dwarfs, madmen, and wenches that our hero (Creighton Hale) experiences is exhaustive. Christensen takes us as our designer and guide in this nearly literal carnival ride through the 'house of Satan'. Some of the horror images are as amazing as you will see from the 1920s!
Sadly, since this film is finally available, after being believed lost for many years, it has garnered no attention. Perhaps because it is an exercise by Christensen, and not a once-in-a-lifetime masterpiece like Haxan, no one is as interested. Perhaps the ending, which may disappoint many, is the reason. Or maybe because it is only in Italian? It is certainly not the filmmaker's fault.
Christensen, like Rex Ingram was very painterly. However, even more than Ingram, Christensen had really mastered the editing of his 'painted' images and has created something here that deserves much attention from silent film scholars and fans. If not for his lack of a moving camera, he was as skilled and as talented as almost any director in the 1920s. 'Footprints' is an artistic gem that deserves more attention from silent and horror film fans.
For years "Seven Footprints to Satan" has been considered a lost film.
Often it was mentioned in magazines like FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND
with mysterious photos that only titillated film collectors and horror
buffs who had heard stories, but had never seen the film.
A little background on the film: the film was shot silent, but during the transition to sound, was given a music and sound effects track, and a talkie end sequence was shot. Of two extant prints, the one that has been bootlegged is a silent print made for foreign release with Italian intertitles.
The basic story is about James Kirkham and his girlfriend Eve being kidnapped to an old dark house involving jewel thieves and a cult led by "Satan". I won't give too much away, just review in general.
The film starts off very atmospheric, with the editing done so that when you think one thing is occurring, it's really something else. The whole theme of the film is very early art deco, and it is a pleasure to see Sol Polito's master camera-work, even if it is ravaged by the hands of time.
The film in style is not unlike Christensen's other film, HAXAN(1922), with bizarre orgies, scantily clothed women, bizarre characters and obtuse sets that overshadow characters at times. The whole atmosphere of the movie is a low key sort of insanity, and even with the wide sets seems claustrophobic.
The acting is a little over the top at times, but generally due to pantomime that was not uncommon of silent films of that period. Creighton Hale doesn't seem very heroic, more like a scared schoolboy, and Thelma Todd can't make up her mind if she's the heroine or the damsel in distress. Sheldon Lewis, Sojin, and Angelo Rossitto all have memorable characters in the movie, and add to Christensen's bizarre world of "Satan", the hooded villain of the film.
The ending really crashes the picture into a brick wall, but overall the movie is worth a viewing, though not the classic everyone expected(or at least, not myself).
I don't expect much to offend anyone in this film of today's audience, but definitely not for squares. There's very little violence, and what is is pretty stagy. There is a scene where a gorilla attacks a naked woman in chains, but there is no nudity and the violence is off screen and implied. The story line is rather complicated, and the Italian intertitles don't help, so it's probably not something for children. People who enjoy Christensen films, Tod Browning films, old dark house mysteries, and/or silent era/early films will enjoy this movie.
My rating 6/10. Has good sets, lighting and camera-work, and a decent story, which fails to come full circle and the acting is a little edgy.
I very much enjoyed watching this film recently. After so many years of reading about it, looking for it, etc., I was not at all disappointed as I so often am ("L'Atlantide" ["Mistress of Atlantis"] comes to mind).
This is one of those Silent horror films I thought I'd only get to read
about in reference books, as it was considered lost until an Italian
print, albeit extremely faded, eventually surfaced. Actually, the
version I watched has been renamed Satan'S STAIRWELL which I assume
is a literal translation of the film's Italian title while the
intertitles themselves have been translated back into English (and
which tend to remain on screen for an inordinate length of time)! Of
course, one is happy to take such rare films in any form they may come
Typical of many latter-day Silents, the horror element here is mingled with intermittent doses of comedy though not so much as in, say, THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927), with which it shares leading man Creighton Hale in a similar role; he's partnered in this case with the popular and tragic Thelma Todd, who comes off somewhat better than Laura La Plante from the earlier film (from the cast, I also recognized Sojin and the ubiquitous Angelo Rossitto but had no idea that 'The Spider' was played by Sheldon Lewis, who had over-acted so horrendously in the rival 1920 version to the John Barrymore DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE). Also, like THE CAT AND THE CANARY, Christensen's film boasts a very striking visual style highlighted by inventive and impressive art direction, camera-work (simulating, for instance, the motion of going up the various floors of the main 'haunted house' set), lighting and editing (at one point, a door opening is quickly followed by a succession of gunshots, only to be revealed as the hero engaged in target practice).
What makes the film unique, perhaps, is its relentless parade of grotesques (a dwarf, a gorilla, a pock-marked cripple, an ape-man, a sinister Oriental, an androgynous servant, etc.) and assorted maidens (either scantily-clad hostages or perverted followers of a satanic cult); all of this gives the film a creepy overall tone which is not easy to shake off and has seldom been replicated with such gusto: the climactic orgy is downright chilling a veritable Pre-Code moment with its suggestive flagellation (anticipating a famous scene in THE SIGN OF THE CROSS ) and satanic audience (though the Devil himself is depicted as nothing more scary than a mysterious figure in a hood!). Which brings us to the cop-out ending that's moralistic (in a good-natured way) but not really unexpected for a horror film of its time (think London AFTER MIDNIGHT ) and, in any case, shouldn't be seen as too much of a let-down considering just how satisfying and immensely enjoyable the lead-up to it has been!
In conclusion, I wanted to comment on Christensen's Hollywood career: one may think it a shame that he seems to have gotten stuck in the 'old dark house' subgenre what with his having directed two more of those, THE HAUNTED HOUSE (1928) and HOUSE OF HORROR (1929), both also featuring Todd and both of which, unfortunately cannot be assessed due to unavailability but, the fact remains that he seriously bungled his one chance at working with the great Lon Chaney on the hoary and ill-suited Russian Revolution melodrama, MOCKERY (1927). However, while his work may have been overshadowed by that of other European directors employed in Hollywood during the final days of the Silent era, this viewing of SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO Satan more than restores his reputation as a visual stylist and someday I would love to be able to check out his only remaining surviving film, the intriguing THE DEVIL'S CIRCUS (1926)
A young man longing for adventure end up in the middle of a robbery and
trapped in castle like home where some very strange people are
wandering about. It all builds as all the "old dark house" conventions
are played up to the max before it ends in a manner that is both
logically right and completely wrong. I dare not say anything else
since this is such fun to watch.
Benjamin Christensen's Seven Footprints to Satan was thought lost for years. During that time it gained a reputation as one of the great films. Thankfully the re-emergence of an Italian titled print proves that Christensen had indeed made what is probably one of the greatest "old dark house" thrillers ever made.
This movie is a blast. There are hooded villains, sliding panels, dwarfs,half humans, gorillas, weirdly shaped people and a sense of fun lacking from many movies of this type. Its a damn near perfect blueprint of how to make a movie like this. The film is also an absolute masterpiece of the directors art. I've never/rarely seen a film that is such a marriage of image and story with camera moves that pure genius. This is a film to study if you want to see how to make a movie.
The movie as it stands has two problems. First the title cards are in Italian, which makes watching it difficult if you don't read the language. I don't. Only after reading a synopsis of the entire plot was I able to really enjoy the madness that was going on on screen. The other problem is that this film is silent. I had always thought it was purely a silent film, however the entries on IMDb and my watching of the film make me think that perhaps part of this was indeed sound. There are sequences that contain a great deal of on screen talking and very little titling which lead me to think there once was more to this film than there is now.
See this movie. This is a masterpiece. Its also a lot of fun.
Now if someone like Criterion or Kino could get their hands on this and set about restoring it we'd all be so much richer.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This starts with a clumsy introduction where we are introduced to our
couple and discover that our hero is desperate for adventure.
Then we are moved into the large center section which is two films superimposed. One is a haunted house deal, the house to which he and girlfriend are kidnapped. Its a prototype for much that followed: all sorts of assorted beasts and persons according to what makeup could then do. Sliding panels all sorts of seriously elaborate stage effects of coming and going, about half of which are comedic.
It seems that this same crowd is in white slaving, and hosts orgies for wealthy acolytes of Satan. This part of the film is set in a huge room with surfaces and stairs, including one set leading to Satan that constitutes a sort of high tech test for our hero. (He passes.)
There's no nudity in this but the women are there for sex as objects for the rich and evilly powerful. The girlfriend is next, presumably to be used by the whole crowd. There's no mistaking that some of this notion and staging was used by Kubrick, but more important was the notion of a dream, a false play based on available shared exploitation.
Then finally we have the end where it is all revealed to have been an elaborate show. An amazingly expensive show, put on so that our hero could have some adventure in his life. Sort of underscores the life as a movie business, and the actress as whore, huh?
Its actually pretty imaginative. I'm not indicating the things normally celebrated. Its the idea of the thing, the show within the show that strikes me as novel.
Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.
Seven Footprints to Satan (1929)
*** 1/2 (out of 4)
Very good and creepy film from director Benjamin Christensen about a couple (Thelma Todd, Creighton Hale) who are kidnapped and taken to an old dark house ran by Satan. Inside the house the two are terrorized by a dwarf (Angelo Rossitto of Freaks fame), a gorilla, an ape man like creature and other weirdos. The atmosphere of this film is so incredibly thick that you'll actually feel as if you're walking among all of these characters. There are several creepy moments as the couple walk around this house, which just has one weird room after another. The film isn't as great as the director's Haxan but it's still among the best of its genre. The set design is terrific and the editing is among some of the best I've seen from this period. You easy to see that this film influenced Universal's Dracula, Paramount's Island of Lost Souls and some of the orgy scene from Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut appears to have been influenced by this film.
This is an old-dark-house movie. A young couple creep around a weird mansion said to be run by Satan, where they run from and into one after another of an ill-assorted crew: a lady in distress, an ape, an ape-man, a midget, various odd-looking people, and (for some reason) two Chinese. They end up in a throne room where the hero is required to play a "Price Is Right" sort of contest involving a climb up seven steps with seven illuminated footprints; hence the title. For my taste it's too much of the same thing. The creeping around fun-house corridors is amusing for a while, then becomes repetitive. By comparison with Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton or Laurel and Hardy doing the same bit in two reels, it isn't truly funny. It's not frightening either, and apparently wasn't intended to be: the household is too absurd. Most films in this genre balance the comedy with a genuine threat, and usually two--one that the characters are led to believe is real, and another for which it's a cover. Here the cover isn't to be taken seriously, and neither is what covered. A few moments of fun emerge from the mix, but it's rather heavy fun. The novel on which the film was based was a straight thriller and I think could have been played straight to better effect--and still could be.
Fans of David Fincher and his film 'The Game' might want to get a hold of this very loony silent film. The director is best known for HAXAN which was released in America as the William Burroughs narrated WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES. When a wealthy young man prepares to embark on a foolish hunting trip to Africa, he and his fiance are abducted and taken to a very bizarre house. The house is ruled by the mysterious Satan, and our hero finds that he will have to brave many a strange situation (often involving a midget) before he can find his loved one.
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