In the 1920s and early 30s in the realm of mystery/horror/comedies Benjamin Christensen may have been the greatest director working in them. He directed a trilogy of mystery/horror films that not only define the genre, but his talents.
Paul Leni and Roland West may have been the only directors as talented as him working on these types of films at the time, but in terms of the quality of the image, the composition, the framing and the mise-en-scene, he surpasses even them. Each had their own specialty, though; Leni-set design; West-special camera effects.
His previous film, 'The Haunted House' (1928) was at the time hailed as his best of these. It may be the greatest 'lost' horror film in terms of artistic merit. He then made 'Footprints' and 'House of Horror' in 1929. Only 'Footprints' seems to have survived to this day.
The only version of this film that seems to be available is an Italian title-carded version of which I viewed a copy. Luckily for me, I had someone translating Italian for me (my sister) so I could figure out what was going on. I still felt like I was missing something, so I watched it again.
Upon second viewing, and having known the plot, I was able to view the real story of this film - the movement of images, the magnificent cutting and the chiaroscuro - still excellent in this worn print. This film actually seems to be about movement rather than a plot. The camera does not move much, but it does in key spots. The interplay and blocking of the characters is outstanding and is seamlessly edited to create a truly visceral experience.
The constant parade of gorillas, dwarfs, madmen, and wenches that our hero (Creighton Hale) experiences is exhaustive. Christensen takes us as our designer and guide in this nearly literal carnival ride through the 'house of Satan'. Some of the horror images are as amazing as you will see from the 1920s!
Sadly, since this film is finally available, after being believed lost for many years, it has garnered no attention. Perhaps because it is an exercise by Christensen, and not a once-in-a-lifetime masterpiece like Haxan, no one is as interested. Perhaps the ending, which may disappoint many, is the reason. Or maybe because it is only in Italian? It is certainly not the filmmaker's fault.
Christensen, like Rex Ingram was very painterly. However, even more than Ingram, Christensen had really mastered the editing of his 'painted' images and has created something here that deserves much attention from silent film scholars and fans. If not for his lack of a moving camera, he was as skilled and as talented as almost any director in the 1920s. 'Footprints' is an artistic gem that deserves more attention from silent and horror film fans.
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