Leslie Megahey’s 1979 adaptation of J Sheridan LeFanu’s tale of ghostly horror finally makes it onto Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of the BFI Flipside series. Originally airing as part of the BBC TV arts series OMNIBUS, SCHALCKEN comes across like one of the BBC’s GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS made by someone with a serious interest in renaissance art. Which is pretty much exactly what it is.
In seventeenth century Holland art student Godfried Schalcken (Jeremy Clyde) is under the tutelage of Gerrit Dou (Maurice Denham). He also happens to be in love with Dou’s niece Rose (Cheryl Kennedy) but lacks the funds to be able to make an honest woman of her. One night a strange, grey man called Vanderhausen calls to say he will be back the next night to discuss something of great importance with Dou. This turns out to be his desire to wed Rose, and he has a box of gold coins to prove he can support her. Dou signs the papers and, after Rose has expressed her disgust for the man, duly hands her over into his care. Time passes and one night Rose returns, still wearing her wedding dress and begging not to be left alone. But she is, for a moment. There’s a blood curdling scream and the girl vanishes.
Years pass. Schalcken marries and Dou dies. After the funeral Schalcken finds himself drawn to the crypt where Rose appears to him, drawing him toward a bed in which something horrible is lurking, something which causes Schalcken to create one of his most memorable paintings.
I’ve read the LeFanu story on which this is based a couple of times and I’m still not exactly sure what happens at the end. This adaptation doesn’t make things much clearer, but that’s not really the point of the piece. Leslie Megahey’s SCHALCKEN is much more about the nature of art, love and commerce, and how one’s attitude to these three things change as one gets older. A far more complex piece that many of the BBC’s other supernatural television programmes of the era, SCHALCKEN is also much better directed. Many of the shots seem to have been set up to emulate the Renaissance paintings that are the subject matter of the story, and the lighting often renders scenes reminiscent of Rembrandt. With its frank and fascinating attitudes to sex and art, SCHALCKEN THE PAINTER is very posh horror indeed, even if it does include a shot of a cat being helped to perform a happy dance by a couple of art students.
The BFI’s Blu-ray ensures that this 1979 BBC TV production looks as good as it possibly can. The image is never going to look as smooth as modern day productions, but the transfer is perfectly adequate. The extras are interesting and well worth a look. First up is the 1962 short film THE PIT, a black and white adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum. It’s weird, atmospheric, and quite excellent, and it had me wondering how writer and director Edward Abraham went from this to writing the screenplay for Milton Subotsky’s THE MONSTER CLUB with his wife Valerie. The other short film on the disc is THE PLEDGE (1981). Digby Rumsey’s adaptation of a Lord Dunsany short is high on atmosphere with the best maggot-ridden corpse in a gibbet I’ve seen in a long time. Apparently it played as the support film to Bob Clark’s PORKY’S over here, which must have caused some head scratching for twenty minutes or so.
There’s also 39 minutes of interviews with SCHALCKEN director Leslie Megahey and DP John Hooper and a booklet with essays on all three films presented on the disc. If you like your horror high quality and highbrow this is the one to get.
The BFI is bringing out SCHALCKEN THE PAINTER on double disc Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 18th November 2013