“The soul of your betrothed will depend upon your success on the Seven Stairs!”
Director: Benjamin Christensen
Starring: Creighton Hale, Thelma Todd, DeWitt Jennings, Sheldon Lewis, William V. Mong, Laska Winters, Angelo Rossitto, Kamiyama Sōjin, Ivan Christy, Kalla Pasha, Charles Gemora, Loretta Young
Screenplay: Richard Bee (Benjamin Christensen) and William Irish (Cornell Woolrich), based upon the novel by Abraham Merritt
Synopsis: Millionaire playboy James Kirkham (Creighton Hale) is preparing for his proposed expedition to “darkest Africa” when he is visited by his Uncle Joe (DeWitt Jennings) and by Eve Martin (Thelma Todd), the society girl with whom he is involved. Joe is exasperated by what he considers Jim’s idiotic behaviour, and above all by his squandering of his inheritance, but Eve sympathises with Jim’s desire for adventure and excitement. Unable to change his nephew’s mind about his expedition, Joe leaves. Eve then tells James that she has finally decided to sell the collection of antiquities left to her by her father, and that she has come to ask him to escort her to the auction. She adds that Professor von Viede (Kalla Pasha) of the Museum of Dresden, with whom James is acquainted, will be there. James does not remember the Professor, but agrees to be Eve’s escort. As they talk, James’ valet (Ivan Christy) listens secretly at the door… At the reception preceding the auction, Professor von Viede gazes in admiration at the prize of Eve’s collection, the Romanoff Emerald. When he and James meet there is an uncomfortable moment before the Professor hastily insists that he remembers him. Suddenly, another of the guests accuses the Professor of trying to steal the emerald. As the Professor protests indignantly, two other of the guests exchange significant looks, and one of them plunges into the argument, striking the Professor’s accuser. The next moment, shots have been fired. The panicked guests rush for the exits. As James and Eve look on in bewilderment they are told that the telephone line has been cut, and that they must go for the police. As the other guests run for the main doors, Eve leads James to a side exit, where her car is waiting. Ordering the chauffeur to drive to the police station, the two jump in, only to realise too late that it is not, in fact, Eve’s car; that metal plates cover the windows; and that they are trapped… Eve tells James that it is her chauffeur who is driving, but that he has only been in her employ a week. When the car stops, James and Eve are pulled out at gunpoint and ordered into a house. Inside, a strange little man hisses at them to do as they are told, if they wish to keep their skins. He then plucks a hair from James’ head and runs away, laughing hysterically. A woman in black (Laska Winters) appears, telling the prisoners that they must follow the butler to their rooms. However, the woman herself is then pulled away by a threatening-looking man. As the bewildered James and Eve start to go after her, they receive another shock: a panel in a wall swings open. Inside is a dwarf (Angelo Rossitto), who warns them to beware of the man with the crutch… The woman in black reappears, insisting that the two obey all orders. The next moment, the air is rent by screams and gunshots. Two struggling women are dragged by, as other people look on unconcerned. James and Eve are ordered upstairs, where James gathers his courage and demands to know what is going on. The woman in black tells him calmly that it is all the will of Satan…
Comments: By the middle of the 1920s, the American film industry was booming—to an extent that saw the studios even struggling to keep up with the demands of a voracious public. In order to feed that demand, and in an attempt to give themselves an advantage over their rivals, the major Hollywood studios of the day began bolstering their ranks by importing talent from Europe. In the days of the silent film, the language barrier was only a minor inconvenience, one easily overcome by translated title-cards; and while some American film-makers, and a section of the public, did resent the success of some of the productions imported to their screens from Germany in particular, there was no denying their artistry.
In the mid-twenties, representatives of the major studios began making regular trips to Europe, extending invitations to Hollywood to many of the more successful actors and directors. One of those who accepted was the Danish director Benjamin Christensen, who early in 1925 found himself at MGM, at the beginning of a four-year tenure in Hollywood that would mix the successful with the disastrous.
Christensen by this time had already travelled a rocky professional road. Like many directors of the period, he started out as an actor, both on stage and on film, and continued to make occasional appearances before the cameras even after he moved into direction with 1914’s Det Hemmelighedsfulde X. Although his early films were profitable, Christensen failed to find a true foothold within the Danish film industry. He responded by stepping away for two years of research and writing, re-emerging from his self-imposed exile to make the film upon which his directorial reputation chiefly rests today, and rightly so: the astonishing Häxan. Despite its inevitable censorship troubles, the film was a sensation worldwide; and on the basis of it, Christensen was offered a position at Ufa. There he directed two films, though from an historical perspective his time in Germany was more important for role in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Mikael, one of the landmarks of early gay cinema.
It was, however, as a director that Christensen was employed at MGM. He found immediate success in America, helming the Norma Shearer vehicle The Devil’s Circus. It must have seemed to Christensen that he had finally found his professional niche when, on the strength of this, he was offered the chance to direct Lon Chaney. However, the resultant film, Mockery, turned out to be one of Chaney’s few failures: although it did end up making a modest profit, contemporary reviews were uniformly negative. Long considered a lost film, a print of Mockery was rediscovered in the 1970s. Its reputation has improved somewhat since then, but only to an extent.
Things did not get any better for Christensen after that at MGM, when he became one of what may be as many as five different directors to have a hand in the catastrophic production of The Mysterious Island. (At any rate, he’s one of the three we’re sure about.) Already wildly over-budget and over-schedule, caught in the cinematic crossfire between silence and sound, The Mysterious Island was in big trouble long before Christensen got there, and ironically, his very professionalism wound end up making things worse. Like his immediate predecessor on the production, fellow émigré Maurice Tourneur, Christensen’s careful, measured way of going about things was exactly what his employers didn’t want; and before long he was following Tourneur out the door.
Maurice Tourneur’s experiences on The Mysterious Island were enough entirely to disenchant him with Hollywood, and he returned to France soon after his dismissal from the production. Benjamin Christensen, equally disgusted, was less drastic in his response: he left MGM for Warners. Christensen made a modest start there with the crime drama The Hawk’s Nest, before moving into the phase of his career both most interesting and most disappointing to lovers of the macabre.
In 1928 and 1929, in collaboration with Cornell Woolrich (working under his pseudonym, William Irish), Benjamin Christensen co-wrote and directed The Haunted House, Seven Footprints To Satan and House Of Horror. Sadly, the first and last of these are both lost films; the second was, for many years, believed to be so too. However, it is now known that two good prints of it do survive, one held by MOMA, the other, a Danish copy of the film, resting in a film archive in Milan; both have been screened publicly, but only very occasionally. Verbal reports indicate that the Danish print is far visually superior to the one held by MOMA.
To date, no formal restoration of Seven Footprints To Satan has been undertaken; though unofficial attempts at improving the quality of the accessible copy of the film have been made. Most of us, however, have had to put up with a horribly fuzzy and washed-out grey-market print with Italian intertitles…at least until an equally horribly fuzzy and washed-out grey-market print with English intertitles showed up.
Existing in almost comically obvious “word processor” font, full of typographical errors, and misspelling both “Benjamin Christensen” and “Abraham Merritt”, these intertitles offer not the slightest assurance that we are seeing even remotely what Benjamin Christiansen and Cornell Woolrich intended.
But to be blunt about it, the intertitles of Seven Footprints To Satan are almost an irrelevance: the power of the film is all in its visuals, which makes watching the available print a deeply frustrating experience. The film is an example of a genre that flourished in Hollywood all throughout the 1920s, the “old dark house” horror-comedy. Offering a perfect opportunity for the not-particularly-horrifying (and usually explained away) horror then favoured by critics and social commentators, these films saturated the marketplace in the early twenties, until by the middle of the decade the public had had its fill of them. Roland West’s 1925 The Monster, a frank spoof of the genre, was supposed to be the final nail the coffin; but oddly, it was also Roland West who revived it again the following year with The Bat.
Unlike its predecessors, this film was primarily an exercise in arresting visuals, garnering high praise for its imaginative set design and experimental cinematography. On the other hand, though not intended entirely seriously, The Bat certainly is more serious than the films that, inevitably, followed in its wake, most significantly Paul Leni’s The Cat And The Canary and The Last Warning, and Benjamin Christensen’s triumvirate of old dark house films.
However, if these horror-comedies, for good or ill, very much increased their “comedy” content, so too did they respond to the visual challenge posed by The Bat: the Leni films are a true and gorgeous feast for the eyes; while Seven Footprints To Satan, as far as we can judge it, may be regarded not merely as another entry in this genre, but as its ne plus ultra.
Like The Last Warning, also made in the transitional year of 1929, Seven Footprints To Satan was originally released in an alternative version with some dialogue sequences and sound effects; and also like The Last Warning, the copies of it that today are available to the general public are entirely silent, and have had an unthinking and hideously inappropriate music track imposed upon them, presumably to compliment their dismal visual quality.
However, even severely compromised as they are, the existing copies of the film do still allow us to see that the art direction, the cinematography and the direction are its true stars. And indeed, there is a distinct sense here that the central characters of Seven Footprints To Satan are, in reality, no more than an excuse to show off that art direction and cinematography and direction to us!
Consequently, this review will be supported by a higher proportion than usual of internet-sourced material; while I can only apologise for the dreadful quality of the screenshots—which remain necessary, in conveying this film’s lengthy and bizarre cast of characters.
In the midst of all this, our putative identification figures are James Kirkham and Eve Martin, played respectively by Creighton Hale and Thelma Todd. Her mysterious and tragic death only a few years away, Todd was at this time a welcome fixture in the films of Benjamin Christensen; although unfortunately, the constant terrorisation of Eve Martin throughout Seven Footprints To Satan has the side-effect of not really giving her much chance to show what she could do either as an actress or as a comedienne.
(I’ve had a real affection for Thelma Todd ever since first seeing Monkey Business: it is not, after all, every woman who can dance the tango with Groucho Marx without losing either her self-possession or her dignity.)
Creighton Hale, certainly cast on the strength of his starring role in The Cat And The Canary, is a problematic hero. With his stocky build, moon face and nerd-glasses, Hale was always a rather unlikely leading man; although the main problem here is that he is, self-evidently, at least ten years too old for the kind of role he’s playing.
What we hear of James’ plans to become “a celebrated explorer” by going off to “darkest Africa”, which he has read about in his “adventure story book”, does not exactly fill us with confidence either; and at this early stage, it is likely that the viewer will side with the exasperated Uncle Joe rather than with the sympathetic Eve.
At the reception preceding the auction of Eve’s collection of antiquities, much suspicious behaviour is on display. It is immediately evident that Professor von Viede doesn’t really know James, any more than James remembers him; although we assume he has his reasons for asserting that he does. The accusation of attempted theft of the Romanoff Emerald interrupts their uncomfortable conversation, and this in turn provokes a reaction from some others in attendance.
As von Viede protests his innocence and some of the other guests draw near the commotion, a man and a woman, both in evening dress, exchange significant looks and winks. The man intervenes in the arrest of the indignant von Viede, while the woman draws a gun from her purse and fires it. Someone else fires back. Not surprisingly, a panic ensues. James manages to find the bewildered Eve, just as word that the telephone-line has been cut reaches them. Like salmon swimming upstream, Eve pulls James aside from the mob stampeding to the front doors of the building and leads him out a side door, and into her car.
The word for Seven Footprints To Satan is, I think, breathless: from the moment that James and Eve realise that the car they are travelling in is not Eve’s, that they have in fact, been abducted, the two careen from scene to scene, and from shock to shock, and danger to danger, with neither they nor the viewer having the opportunity to catch their breaths or collect their scattered wits.
So if my subsequent account of their adventures reads at all coherently, or if it seems from this review that the film has structure and dramatic pacing, well, I’m giving you a very wrong impression of it, that’s all.
Likewise, it’s probably a good idea if I stop here and give you an idea of the dramatis personae who will burst in and out of the picture for the rest of the film, generally without stopping to introduce themselves. Let’s see: we have—
- The Woman In Black
- The Spider, aka The One On Crutches
- The Dwarf
- The Strange Little Hair-Pulling Guy
- The Guy With Hair All Over His Face (who is possibly A Werewolf)
- The Witch
- The Oriental Mystic
- The Weird Little Gollum-Like Guy
- The Gaunt Man In A Smoking-Jacket
- The Gorilla
- The Nekkid Chick
- Various intended sacrifices (female)
- Various cultists / orgy-goers (male and female)
- Random screaming women
- Random gun-toting goons
Oh, yeah—and then there’s the big one: Satan. Although whether this is the Satan or merely a Satan is unnervingly unclear for most of the film. James chooses to assume the latter, but— Well, you would, wouldn’t you?
After a series of encounters with The Woman In Black, The Strange Little Hair-Pulling Guy and The Dwarf, James and Eve are warned to follow all orders or else and sent upstairs to The Room With The Grand Piano, where they are spied upon by The Guy With Hair All Over His Face.
Suddenly, a door bursts open and a young woman runs into the room, screaming that Satan has ordained her sacrifice and begging James to help her. Almost before James can react, a man in a tuxedo storms up, sweeps the girl up in his arms, and carries her away as she continues to scream and struggle. Historically, this is one of the more important moments in Seven Footprints To Satan, as the intended sacrifice is played by a sixteen-year-old Loretta Young, then just beginning her graduation from child actress to adult star.
And hard on the heels of one of Seven Footprints To Satan’s most important moments comes one of its most startling. More screaming is heard from upstairs, and another terrified woman emerges from behind another door. This one, however, is nekkid: or so we assume from the fact that we are only permitted to see her bare shoulders and her bare feet. The woman tries to hold shut the door of the room she has just left, but those on the other side of it are too strong for her. Her pursuers are two men in evening-dress, another man on crutches, and – ulp! – a gorilla. The men seize her and bind her to a pillar. As she dangles from her manacles, the gorilla grabs her ankles; and from the woman’s increasingly hysterical screaming and struggling, we are given leave to infer that the gorilla subsequently grabs something else…
(The gorilla is – inevitably, I suppose – played by Charles Gemora, here wearing the same ape suit as he would in Murders In The Rue Morgue three years later.)
Downstairs, the stunned James and Eve fret over whether they can do anything for the ape’s victim, but are dissuaded from taking action by another abrupt appearance from the Dwarf, who warns James that above all else, he must protect Eve.
A knocking on a door on the far side of the room is the Dwarf’s cue to vanish, and when James steels himself to open it, he finds himself confronted by the Witch (whose witchiness seems to lie chiefly in the fact that someone has gone to town on her face with an eyeliner pencil). The Witch announces herself to be the mistress of Satan, and after a series of mysterious pronouncements (“The devil’s horn is not to be sounded!”), she begins making arrangements for Eve’s accommodation—and only Eve’s.
James then works up the nerve to ask the $64,000 question:
Replying only that Satan is, “The one who pardons!” – a remark accompanied by an ominous pointing at the floor, or beyond – the Witch departs.
Instantly, the Gorilla appears, emerging from a secret panel behind the bed in which Eve has just been told she must sleep. It does not bother the petrified James and Eve, though, but wanders across the room and disappears behind a curtain. Hesitantly, James pulls the curtain aside. Behind it is a door, with a covered window ajar above it; while working its way along the window-sill is someone’s hand…
James climbs up and bravely lifts the window. Behind it are steel bars, and behind that a Weird Little Gollum-Like Guy, who tells James mournfully that Satan has taken many prisoner, and held them without food or water… He announces his prosaic intention to escape and go for the police. The next instant, however, a screen bearing a skull-and-crossbones slams across between James and the prisoner.
On the other side of the room, Eve finds herself confronted by The Guy With Hair All Over His Face (and who May Or May Not Be A Werewolf), who has come to tell James that he must surrender to Satan, “That which you hold in your right hand!” James then discovers that he carries in his right pocket the Romanoff Emerald. He refuses to give it up, though.
The ensuing stand-off is interrupted by the Oriental Mystic (the unmistakable features of Kamiyama Sōjin beneath the turban), who also demands the emerald. James continues defiant, so the Oriental Mystic resorts to the disappointingly banal tactic of having a Random Goon beat him up and take it. The Oriental Mystic orders The Guy With Hair All Over His Face to put the emerald in the treasure chamber, before informing James and Eve that everyone who enters the house is given a number, and that theirs are #741 and #742.
As the others depart, Eve runs to help James up. Unbeknownst to themselves, the two are briefly menaced by The Gorilla, but the ape is thwarted by the reappearance of The Witch, who has come to tell them that they must – gasp! – come down to supper. The Woman In Black then shows up, gun in hand, to put paid to any argument. Resistance, she tells them, is not merely futile, but fatal; she adds, however, that anyone brave enough to take the key she proffers and to make their way out of the house will be granted their every wish by Satan. A quavering James takes the key. The Woman In Black tells him that he must follow the corridor to Chamber 13, find the concealed lever, and pull it.
Reluctantly, James obeys, leaving Eve held at gunpoint. Along the way, he is menaced by The Gorilla (without realising it), and finds The Guy With Hair All Over His Face slumped in a chair, asleep—or dead. Making his way into Chamber 13, James is confronted by The Gaunt Man In A Smoking-Jacket, who exults that they have caught another soul for Satan.
James promptly backs out again, and must be rescued (sort of) by The Oriental Mystic from the combined threat of The Gorilla and The Guy With Hair All Over His Face. The Oriental Mystic orders James up a narrow spiral staircase, where he finds himself in a hall containing a long table. Quite a number of our acquaintances are just seating themselves at that table, and we recognise amongst them some of the “guests” from Eve’s auction, including Professor von Viede, and also James’ own valet.
James is then offered the usual “contract” – signature in blood and all – and warned that in the event of his refusal, the newspaper story reporting his mysterious “disappearance” has already been prepared. The “contract”, however, turns out to be a blank piece of paper; while James is also offered an ordinary pen to sign it with. When he remains defiant, The Woman In Black issues an order for The Spider to be summoned…
The Spider, aka The One On Crutches, is played by Sheldon Lewis, who in 1920 starred in a very peculiar version of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde. Here he sports wild hair, distorted features, scraggly teeth, and a club-foot; and he enters the room via a secret staircase hidden behind a large painting, which slides up to admit him. At that moment, Eve is dragged in by a Random Goon, and The Woman In Black orders The Spider to—
Well, we never find out what nefarious deed was in the offing, as James immediately agrees to sign the blank piece of paper, provided Eve’s safety is secure. The Spider isn’t pleased at all, but The Woman In Black agrees. The Oriental Mystic then appears through a secret panel behind a bookcase, and orders James into the space beyond.
Suddenly, The Spider threatens Eve; she screams and backs away, right into a Random Goon, who drags her out of the room. James tries to help, but is seized by more Random Goons and thrust through the opening in the bookcase. He finds himself trapped in a sealed room, but not to worry: a panel pops open and reveals The Dwarf, who gives to James what he calls “the Professor’s key”.
It turns out we’re not talking about Professor von Viede here, but – believe it or not – one “Professor Moriarty”. Who this might be amongst our cast of thousands we have as yet no way of knowing; but The Dwarf tells James that of all the house’s occupants, only The Professor can be trusted. He also adds (rather unnecessarily, we feel) that James’ life is in danger.
The next instant, the panel slams shut and The Dwarf is gone. Using his key, James lets himself out of the room into a corridor with an elevator at one end. Seeing a man and a woman nearby, he conceals himself. After kissing the woman passionately, the be-robed man dons a full-face mask and the two make their way to the elevator. They are challenged there, and James hears them asked for “the sacred name”. The man makes two ritual gestures and replies, “It is the name of one of Satan’s unnamed Brothers of Eternity.”
The man is given a key, and there is a mention of a car waiting outside, which gives James hope that he may have found a means of escape. For the moment, though, he heads in the other direction, picking up a discarded mask, and then discovering to his astonishment that a ball is going on in the house, with masked men and woman in evening-dress dancing in the huge room downstairs.
Abruptly, The Dwarf reappears, warning James that he must return to the sealed room immediately, and that Eve is being threatened with sacrifice. He obeys, and just in time: Eve is brought into the room by a Random Goon, who then goes to unlock the door that James has just locked. James jumps him, holding him down as Eve binds and gags him with the cloth coverings of the room’s furniture.
As yhe two escape through the far door, James explains the situation to Eve and gives her the mask he found earlier. Cautiously, she makes her way out to the staircase. Below her, at the edge of the ballroom, a man in robes and mask is seated. Eve takes a flower from a vase and tosses it down into his lap. This, followed by a series of flirtatious gestures, has the desired effect: the man runs eagerly up the stairs as she retreats…
The owner of the robes (who look old enough to have known better, frankly) is soon locked in the sealed room with the Random Goon, while a masked Eve and a robed James hurry to the elevator. James goes through the ritual correctly, and is given a key.
However, as the elevator begins to descend, an alarm sounds throughout the house. The elevator is stopped, and its guard tells the couple in disguise that two prisoners are trying to escape, and that no-one will be allowed to leave the house until they have been found. Holding a gun on him, he demands James’ key back.
He and Eve are then let out of the elevator. They find themselves in a large room, where a risqué party – as risqué a party as a 1929 film could get away with, anyway – is in full swing; a party than soon escalates into an orgy – as much of an orgy as a 1929 film could get away with, anyway.
(Of course, if you really wanted an orgy in your film, you had to make it about the Bible.)
A passing woman tells James and Eve that there’s no need for them to stay masked, and they reluctantly reveal themselves. However, rather than taking any interest in the newcomers, most of the party-guests are watching a line of dancing-girls in the middle of the room, who are dressed in flesh-coloured leotards that make them look as naked as a 1929 film could—-well, you know how that goes.
As an elderly “gentleman” (who may or may not be the same one who fell for Eve’s routine earlier, it’s hard to be sure) ogles the chorus-line at close range, a drunken party-goer staggers up to Eve and starts pawing at her. As James struggles with him, two more guests rush up and hustle Eve into the middle of the orgy (you can tell it’s an orgy, because everyone’s sitting on the floor), while James is dragged away in the opposite direction.
The Oriental Mystic then strides in and strikes a gong, announcing that Satan demands silence. A tall, robed figure appears, and those gathered burst into applause (!).
The Oriental Mystic announces that two women will now be chosen for the honour of sacrifice. The guests applaud again, and then resume their seats on the floor. Satan moves slowly amongst them, and finally decides upon who it is who is to receive the ultimate “honour”.
The first is a brunette, who takes her summons to the altar with every sign of rapture and gratitude, standing before Satan and fluttering her eyelashes like a girl with a crush. However, a young man in the crowd looks anything but gratified by this turn of events, and starts fondling the gun in his pocket…
The Oriental Mystic puts a cloak about the brunette’s shoulders and leads her away, as Satan resumes his search for the second sacrifice—who is, of course, Eve. She is not quite as gratified by this choice as her predecessor. Nor is James, who howls a protest from the far side of the room. This is the cue for the brunette’s young man to intervene: he fires his gun into the air, shouting threats against his fellow cultists, who run for the doors even as someone puts the lights out.
In the middle of all this confusion, James finds himself locked in yet another hidden room. Immediately, a panel slides open, and we are finally introduced to Professor Moriarty, who turns out to be—-
The Guy With Hair All Over His Face, who May Or May Not Be A Werewolf.
Huh. Didn’t see that one coming.
This individual – who, thankfully for my poor typing fingers, I can now call simply “The Professor” – tells James that Eve has been taken to Satan’s chamber. He leads him up a staircase beyond the secret panel. The two cautiously open a door to what the Professor explains is the chamber of The Spider, while the chamber of Satan is beyond it.
The Spider is pacing up and down on his crutches in the first room, which is also (unbeknownst to all) occupied by The Gorilla, who has hidden himself in a trunk. Or perhaps it isn’t a trunk: as we get a better look around, we see that the room is filled with all sorts of esoteric paraphernalia, including a scattering of coffins.
Our heroes move cautiously into the room, only for the door to slam shut and trap them. A moment later the heavy lid of one of the coffins starts to lift, revealing a woman’s hand. As James stares at that, the lid of what is actually a trunk, I think, flies open, and The Gorilla stands up; although as usual, James is too distracted to realise his danger. He backs away to a bookcase, where another panel slides open, allowing James to be seized about the throat by The Spider.
The Gorilla then hops out of the trunk and does the same to The Professor who, while all of this has been going on, has been hiding behind a chair. The Gorilla is dragging The Professor away when a hand knocks some of the books from the shelves – from behind – and then produces a gun. A bullet stops The Gorilla; The Professor and his saviour, The Dwarf, then rush to the coffin to free from it none other than Eve herself.
Meanwhile, James is on the point of overcoming The Spider when – do you really need me to say it? – a panel slides open. The Oriental Mystic orders a few Random Goons into the room, and James, Eve and The Professor are captured. Their destination is the chamber of Satan, at one end of which is a huge dais, sitting above a staircase of seven stairs, each one of them counted off with a glowing number, and with a glowing footprint marking the way up to Satan’s throne, currently unoccupied, but surrounded by young women in skimpy apparel.
James is dragged into the chamber, and the gathered cultists jump to their feet, howling for his blood. Eve and The Professor soon follow. The Oriental Mystic again strikes the gong and calls for silence. Satan then emerges from behind his throne and, as his followers applaud enthusiastically, holds up one hand. The cultists obediently fall silent and seat themselves. The Oriental Mystic then announces that the only thing that can save the prisoners is to succeed on Satan’s Seven Stairs.
Hidden amongst the Seven Stairs, explains The Oriental Mystic, are four “Stairs Of Salvation”; if James manages to ascend to the dais treading only on these four stairs, he and Eve will be immediately freed. If he touches any of the three “False Steps”, however, Eve will be freed, but he must serve as Satan’s slave for three years, after which he will be released; while to tread on all three “False Steps” means instant death for them both.
At this, The Woman In Black leaps to her feet, crying out that James does not deserve Satan’s generosity. James, it seems, has finally been pushed too far, because he answers with angry, defiant words—although he does not demand his own freedom, only Eve’s. The gong silences the ensuing ruckus, and Satan settles things by telling James that not merely Eve’s life, but her soul, depends upon what he does.
And that, as far as James is concerned, is that. Bravely freeing himself from Eve’s desperately clinging arms, he walks towards the Seven Stairs, knowing that any move he makes might mean his death—or, indeed, a fate worse than death…
Considering how very obscure Seven Footprints To Satan is today, and how very difficult it is for anyone to see it as it should be seen, a close examination of the film reveals that it has been surprisingly influential. (We assume that professional film-makers find it easier to get a look at a good print than the rest of us poor proles.) Most amusingly in this respect, perhaps, is that Stanley Kubrick seems to have lifted the visual design of the film’s orgy sequence, if not exactly its content, for his own orgy sequence in Eyes Wide Shut. There’s also a certain star-heavy thriller from the 1990s (which I won’t name in order to prevent spoiling either film) which seems to me to owe an extraordinary debt to Seven Footprints To Satan; a debt that I’m not aware has ever been acknowledged.
Seven Footprints To Satan was successful upon its release—although not everyone appreciated it: legend has it that when he saw what had been done to his novel, Abraham Merritt broke down and cried.
The film’s companion-pieces, The Haunted House and House Of Horror, were also popular, even though (or because?) the “comedy” was significantly increased in these two. (The latter starred Louise Fazenda and Chester Conklin, which speaks for itself.) Nevertheless, by the end of 1929, Benjamin Christensen had had enough of Hollywood. The takeover by sound cinema, with its need for a firm grasp of the English language and English dialogue, was the signal for many of the émigré directors and actors to return to their native lands. Not only did Christensen return to Denmark, he gave up film-making altogether for the next decade, instead concentrating upon directing for the stage. However, what looked like it might be the beginning of a second cinematic wind for Christensen, 1939’s Skilsmissens Børn, instead proved to be a false dawn; and after directing only three more movies, he retired from film-making altogether in 1942.
The reputation of Benjamin Christensen today rests almost entirely upon Häxan not merely because it is an extraordinary film – and make no mistake about it: it is an extraordinary film – but because it is one of the very few of his films to be readily available. Tragically, more than half of Christensen’s films are lost. Apart from the definitive release of Häxan as a part of The Criterion Collection, the only legitimate commercial releases of his films are from the Danish Film Institute, which paired Det Hemmelighedsfulde X (which screened at MOMA as The Mysterious X some years ago) with 1916’s Hævnens Nat.
There have been retrospectives of the director’s work held on both coasts of the US at various times, which helped to restore his reputation with those lucky enough to attend; Mockery and The Mysterious Island (if you count that) have played on TCM; while The Devil’s Circus is out there somewhere on the grey market. And that, sadly, is just about that…except for those of us willing to devote their Saturday, their eyesight and – or so it felt at times – their sanity to peering through the alternating murk and blinding whiteness of the circulating prints of Seven Footprints To Satan in an effort to render fair judgement upon it—and who, having done so, are in a position to say, It was worth it.