Forgotten Films: Seven Footprints to Satan (1929)

The cast of Seven Footprints to Satan: They don't make flicks this weird anymore.

Review by Scott A. Cupp

There is not a new Forgotten Film this week because I started a new job and had to run out immediately to Las Vegas for the National Finals of the Trivia network that I play in. At this point I don’t know how we are going to do, but I have high hopes (as the song says). So enjoy this classic goodie from 2011.

This is a rerun of the 2nd in my series of Forgotten Obscure or Neglected Films.

The poster for Seven Footprints to Satan. Also plenty weird.

This week’s film has a history. In 1997, I attended the World Science Fiction convention here in San Antonio. My partner Willie Siros and I had a booth in the dealer’s room as Adventures in Crime and Space, which was the name of our bookstore in Austin. As usual, we shopped around the room looking for things to buy and re-sell or things for our own personal collections. Someone — I believe it was Greg Ketter of Dreamhaven Books — showed me a VHS copy of a film I was unfamiliar with.

SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN was a lost silent film which had recently been rediscovered in Italy. The only known copy had Italian titlecards and this was a copy of it. I had read the source novel of the same title probably 30 years earlier and did not remember much of it, except that it was by A. Merritt (author of THE SHIP OF ISHTAR, reviewed in my Forgotten Books column a few weeks ago) and that I had enjoyed it. I was also informed that one of my favorite writers, Cornel Woolrich, had worked on the screenplay for the film. I had to have it, so I bought it as well as other films at the time.  I attempted to watch SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN, but with no idea what the title cards were saying, I was lost and just shelved the title as a good try.

Fast forward 13 years, and I acquired a new VHS player, the old one having died. I remembered the film and wondered if anyone had ever bothered to translate the titlecards so I could understand the proceedings. They had, and I printed  out the translation. This week, I was feeling poorly and I knew I wanted to watch and review this film, so I dug out the tape, fired up the player and traveled to Silent Film Land.

The basic story deals with Jim (Creighton Hale), a successful and very rich chemist who wants to go o Africa and explore lost civilizations. His uncle Joe (DeWitt Jennings)  is trying to talk him out of it but fails. His fiancée, Eve (the always delightful Thelma Todd), shows up with a strange request. She knows he is getting ready to leave but her father is having a party where he plans to show a fabulous emerald, and she is suspicious of one guest, a professor that Jim knows. Jim agrees to go to the party and validate or repudiate the guest.

They arrive at the party, and while the professor looks the part, he does not respond accurately to Jim’s question and the police are summoned. Suddenly, mayhem breaks out, guns are brandished, shots are fired and people flee. Jim and Eve flee to a limousine owned by his uncle and ask to be taken away. Things are quite for a while, when the pair realize they are being taken somewhere other than where they desire.

They find themselves at the house of “Satan,” who may or may not be a criminal mastermind a supernatural fiend, the devil himself, or some combination of the above. Here they encounter many unusual characters including an imp, a dwarf, an ape-like man, a gorilla, Satan’s Mistress and “the Spider.” They are led through odd rooms, questioned, imprisoned, helped to escape, disguised, trapped and finally tested with the title Seven Footprints, which could lead to fabulous wealth and freedom or servitude to Satan — or even Death.

The film also features a brief, unbilled cameo of a 16-year-old Loretta Young.

It’s not a long film. I think my copy clocked in at 77 minutes, and mine contains scenes not covered by the translation where I just had to sort of guess what was happening. The copy is not pristine, but when only one exists, you take what you could get.

I was a little disappointed in the criminal aspects of the story, particularly with Woolrich involved. His PHANTOM LADY and THE BRIDE WORE BLACK are two great novels that made excellent films. But then I checked the date – 1929.  At this point, Woolrich had not turned exclusively to mystery. He was still writing novels of the Jazz Age like Fitzgerald, and on the basis of them, had secured a job in Hollywood, so this made more sense since Jim and Eve are certainly privileged members of the Jazz Age society. He was still ten years from producing his first mystery novels, though the short stories would come soon enough. Apparently, the director Benjamin Christensen is well thought of, though most of his films are now lost or sorely incomplete. I was not aware of his work before this.

One on-line site mentioned that A. Merritt cried when he saw what was done to his fabulous story. I can understand that. Gone is much of the fantasy that made him who he was, and apparently this chops off much of the last third of the novel.

I was glad to get to see this film but I cannot recommend it to everyone.  If this sounds like your cup of tea, take a look at the absolutely brilliant analysis and extended information over at AND YOU CALL YOURSELF A SCIENTIST!.

Series organizer Todd Mason hosts more Tuesday Forgotten Film reviews at his own blog and posts a complete list of participating blogs.