Thursday, October 27, 2016

Grey Market Cinema: Seven Footprints to Satan (1929)


Wealthy young man-about-town James Kirkham (Creighton Hale) may not have the hypnotic power to cloud men’s minds so that they cannot see him…but he’s loaded with dough all the same, and he’s yearning to go to Africa for some “adventure.”  His Uncle Joe (DeWitt Jennings) isn’t particularly sold on the jaunt to the Dark Continent, while fiancée Eva Martin (Thelma Todd) does her best to be supportive of her man.  Eva is hosting an auction at her digs that evening, where she will sell off a collection of antiquities bequeathed to her by her father—and she would very much like Jim to be her escort.

At the reception preceding the auction, Kirkham has a run-in with a Professor von Viede (Kalla Pasha) from the Museum of Dresden; Eva harbors strong suspicions that von Viede is not who he claims to be, and Jim becomes equally apprehensive when von Viede, whom he has met previously, has difficulty remembering Kirkham’s name.  This is an invitation for all heck to break loose: von Viede is accused by several of those people attending the reception of trying to steal a priceless emerald belonging to Eva, and when shots ring out, the guests head for the exits at breakneck speed.  Jim attempts to contact the police, but is informed that the wires have been cut.  He and Eva take advantage of a side exit, and jump into the car driven by her chauffeur.

And this is where Jim and Eva’s nightmare begins.  They’re trapped in her car—the windows of glass have been replaced by steel—and driven to a mysterious house harboring, as described by Leonard Maltin in his Classic Movie Guide, “a torture chamber, a marauding gorilla, a dwarf hiding behind a sliding wall, and decadent socialites running around with guns.”  And the owner of this bizarre property?  Could it be…Satan?!!

Yes, this is the second appearance of the Prince of Darkness on the blog this week…though the Beelzebub of Seven Footprints to Satan (1929) is not the fey gentleman with the pointy ears and huge salad fork we encountered in The Undead (1957).  Satan is a hooded figure who presides over what Silent Era fitfully describes as “a Dantesque hotel from hell, with Satan as the manager.”  Directed by Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen, who’s best known for 1922’s Häxan (Witchcraft Through the Ages), it was adapted by the director from a 1928 novel written by Abraham Merritt, though author Cornell Woolrich (as William Irish) also worked on the screenplay.  (There is a marked difference between the onscreen version and the original source material in that the movie discards the last third of Merritt’s novel.)

Seven Footprints to Satan has been on my “must-see” radar for a good many years after reading the write-up in the Maltin Guide, and when I saw that a copy was available at Finders Keepers Classics it went into my online shopping cart faster than you can say “The soul of your betrothed will depend upon your success on the Seven Stairs!”  I do not exaggerate when I say that this is some serious WTF cinema.  Jim and Eva’s excursion into the “House of Satan” is like a nightmare one experiences after eating a heavy dinner; there’s weirdness around the corner in every section of that house, and the movie climaxes with what Len describes as “a surreal game-show-type challenge.”  (And Creighton Hale thought he had problems in The Cat and the Canary [1927].)  A post I wrote for the blog back in 2009 on another Christensen-directed film, Mockery (1927), mentions that I needed to see Satan because of my Thelma Todd obsession.  (Thel did not disappoint me.)

What did disappoint me was the quality of the DVD that I purchased from Finders Keepers…and this is going to take a bit of explanation.  Seven Footprints to Satan was originally released in two versions: a silent version (making it one of the last silent films) and a part-talkie with a Vitaphone score, dialogue sequences, and sound effects.  This latter version has yet to resurface (it is considered a lost film), and the silent Satan is squirreled away in the Danish Film Museum film archive and in the Fondazione Cineteca Italiana film archive (a print also exists at the Museum of Modern Art, according to And You Call Yourself a Scientist!).  It’s been viewed at a few film festivals in the past, but for those of us not able to attend these events we must soldier on with what AYCYAS hilariously terms “a horribly fuzzy and washed-out grey-market print with Italian intertitles – at least until recently, when an equally horribly fuzzy and washed-out grey-market print with English intertitles showed up.”  Now, I know that there’s not a whole lot Finders Keepers can do about the washed-out fuzziness (you takes what you can get) but I was a little miffed that their version comes to a rather abrupt conclusion (I clocked the FK copy at 74 minutes).

YouTube came to the rescue—or more accurately, the Serial Squadron…which has put up their “restored” version on the site, and also makes available a DVD copy that’s pricier than the one at Finders Keepers (thirteen simolians for the SS copy) but at least it’s not truncated (the Squadron’s print is 76 minutes).  (The Squadron has also tinkered around with the movie with some tinting that I don’t think was a good idea— thoughthey defend it as improving on the poor picture quality; I have bitched about the SS’ fondness for “tweaking” movies on the blog in the past, particularly the “sanitizing” of their release of The Vanishing Legion [1931].)  You have the option of checking out Seven Footprints to Satan online if you’re not particularly committed to adding this to your shelves (what can I say—I’m a physical media kind of guy).

I’ve kept mum about the “twist” ending of Seven Footprints to Satan so as not to spoil it for those of you who haven’t seen it…but to be honest, I kind of doped out where it was headed about twenty minutes into the presentation (an occupational hazard when you watch a lot of movies).  Still, I think the movie is an entertaining one; a dreamlike horror spoof that will definitely take up space in the memory banks long after you’ve shut down the computer or DVD player.  To quote the Serial Squadron: “This one is really not to be missed, and a hell of a lot better than London After Midnight!”

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