Saturday, August 09, 2014

Seven Footprints to Satan (1929)

Delirious, terrifying late-silent American horror film, directed by Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen (HAXAN). A timid, wealthy young idler (Creighton Hale) dreams of going on big adventures to Africa, but on the night of a society ball, he and his financee (Thelma Todd) are kidnapped and taken to the lair of a group of Satanists, who enslave and torture victims through various means. The young couple encounter one gruesome, uncanny character after another in their attempts to escape before they are called for a meeting with Satan himself to determine their fate.

Christensen pulls out all the stops, employing the kind of highly-stylized lighting effects and grotesque imagery that he used so effectively in HAXAN, and putting it to the service of an "old dark house" thriller. He finds a magnificent use for some of Hollywood's most unusual character actors, with the likes of Sheldon Lewis, William V. Mong, Sojin, Nora Cecil, and Angelo Rossitto among the bizarre residents in the Satanists' den. Christensen's penchant for perverse imagery includes such moments as a young girl (Loretta Young, in one of her earliest roles) being stripped, bound and lashed as her feet are pawed by a gorilla (played by, who else, Charles Gemora).

The basic set-up is the stuff of countless "old dark house" movies, so popular around this time with films like THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927), THE CAT CREEPS and THE BAT WHISPERS (both 1930), and it's even possible to imagine it being played for "fright" comedy by someone like Bob Hope or Lou Costello. But in Christensen's hands, this familiar premise turns dark, taking a genuinely sinister turn, and becomes the stuff of nightmares. Indeed, the film has the emotionally-draining effect of a bad dream. It's exhausting, frustrating, terrifying, and even the light tone of its last-minute, twist ending does not alleviate the horror that has been built up over the previous hour, instead ringing as ironically false as Murnau's happy ending to THE LAST LAUGH. By that point, Christensen has already done his work in scaring us.

No comments: