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This adaptation of Merritts Seven Footprints to Satan (1927) was conducted by Benjamin Christensen. The Danish Christensen had gained a great deal of acclaim and controversy with his witchcraft documentary Häxan (1922). On the basis of this, Christensen was brought to the US where he made several films at MGM, including a version of Jules Vernes The Mysterious Island (1929) from which he ended up being removed. At Warner Brothers, Christensen made three Old Dark House films with The Haunted House (1928), Seven Footprints to Satan here and The House of Horror (1929), after which he returned to Denmark and did not direct another film for many years. Seven Footprints to Satan was a film that was regarded as lost until a print turned up in the last few years,
Seven Footprints to Satan is best placed in the context of a film like The Cat and the Canary (1927). The Cat and the Canary and a host of other film from around this period see the likes of The Unholy Three (1925), The Bells (1926), The Bat (1926), The Unknown Terror (1927), The Terror (1928)and The Bat Whispers (1930), all of which were drawn from Broadway plays usually featured heroines in old dark house facing menacing criminals in disguise, combining thrills, some scary elements and an absurdly improbable whodunnit ending. This is something this author has termed the Old Dark House thriller. Although it dispenses with many of the conventions of the genre, Seven Footprints to Satan has clearly been intended in the same vein, most notably in starring Creighton Hale, the romantic male lead of The Cat and the Canary, who is essentially cast as the equivalent of Laura LaPlantes heiress. (Hale is also made up to resemble Harold Lloyd, although makes for rather wimpy leading man today).
The film starts with a banal and unexceptional, even dull, ordinariness. We are introduced to heir Creighton Hale, announcing his plans to go to Africa in search of adventure, the arrival of his uncle (DeWitt Jennings) before he and his fiancee (Thelma Todd) depart for a society function. There is nothing particularly standout about any of these scenes however, things then start to get strange. After exposing a professor passing off a faked jewel, armed people break into the ball. Creighton Hall and Thelma Todd flee with his chauffeur, only for metal shutters to come down across the car. They are taken to a mansion and ordered to go up to their room. Whatever is going on at the house appears increasingly stranger a dwarf appears out of secret panels in the wall warning them to beware the man with crutches, they are directed by a sophisticatedly aloof woman who is then seen talking to a giant silhouetted figure around the corner. When they ask how long they are to be there, they are told in title card: One month ... one week ... Satan will decide. Not long after, a woman enters their room begging their help: Save me. I am to be flogged one hundred times per Satans orders, and later we see glimpses of that happening. There is a severe faced woman who announces I am Satans mistress; a lurking gorilla who makes up the bed; a professor who has whiskers covering half his face that makes him look like a werewolf; a hand that appears out of the transom over the door and when opened turns out to be an emaciated man who says he has been kept prisoner there for a year without food or water.
In no time, Benjamin Christensen has taken us from polite society and propelled us into a world that is less like an Old Dark House film than a Halloween haunted house where everywhere seems to lurks with sinister figures muttering portentous threats, strange people, pop-up doors and panels, guns poking between the books in a library. The world that Christensen absorbs us into is an entirely fantastical one. The film arrives at the particularly suspenseful scene where Creighton Hale must climb the titular seven steps and chose which three are the rights ones in order to win his fiancees freedom.
The great disappointment of the film is that it opts for a mundane resolution. This was very common for the era in The Cat and the Canary and other works such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), London After Midnight (1927) and The Beast with Five Fingers (1946) where events that appeared sinister or supernatural in origin would through an absurdly improbable end revelation be revealed to usually be a set-up to drive someone crazy or expose a criminal. Here [PLOT SPOILERS] we get one of the most ridiculous of these twist ending where it is revealed that everything has been set up by Creighton Hales uncle in order to teach him responsibility instead of chasing after adventure in Africa. The three years servitude he has agreed to give Satan transpire as him having agreed to work in his uncles firm for that period. Aside from the absurd contrivation of this revelation, the inherent conservatism of it is annoying one that devalues the aspiration to seek something other than the ordinary; indeed, where adventure-seeking is equated with The Devil and by implication the settled down, responsible working life (even if it is someone who from the looks of the estate they have inherited need never work again) is equated with good.
This was one of the few films to mention The Devil or Devil worship up until the 1960s and Rosemarys Baby (1968). There was the subsequent Val Lewton film The Seventh Victim (1943) but that suffered from censorship problems, as had Christensens own Haxan. The problem with the film here is that you are never sure if it is referring to Satan as in devil worship or that this is simply an honorific that has been granted to the mysterious master of the house.
Fan-edited clip of highlights from the film here:-
Entire film available online in several parts beginning here (but intertitle cards are in Italian):-