This review contains extensive plot details and spoilers.
Leslie Megahey’s visually luscious 1979 BBC adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s short ghost story Schalcken the Painter” (published in 1839) makes daring use of what, at the time of its broadcast, would have been considered fairly unconventional and somewhat postmodern means of imitating one of M.R. James’ most effective devices for lending credence to his own subtle tales of supernatural terror (which had themselves been heavily influenced by the work of Le Fanu): namely, rooting the basis of the fiction in checkable, recorded historical detail (usually, in James’ case, through the scholarly efforts expended on some recondite area of academic scholarship by his retinue of antiquarian protagonists) and setting them in believably rendered real-life locations. A contrived air of authenticity is thereby generated around unnatural events that might otherwise have been considered too far-fetched to ever be entertained as truth by a general reader. But for Megahey, it was his fascination with the idea of subverting the traditional arts film format, like that of the BBC drama-documentaries he’d been steadily making at the organisation’s arts department (about renaissance artists and sculptors, etc.), which eventually led him to the idea of tackling the ghost story as his chosen subject. It was an idea that finally took full shape when Megahey became aware of Le Fanu’s story and its use of the real-life but little-known 17th century Dutch artist Godfried Schalcken [1643-1706] (albeit with the name spelt differently) as its protagonist. Megahey realised that adapting Le Fanu’s story with reference to what was known of the biography of its real-life subject might allow him the opportunity to blur the lines between authoritative documentary-drama arts film and the sort of period ghost story that, until the year previously, had been a regular fixture of the BBC’s Christmas schedules, thanks to producer-director Lawrence Gordon Clark’s annual “Ghost Story for Christmas” strand. What if the two genres were used to mutually reinforce and yet question the other in a sort of dialogue which, as the film progressed, increasingly challenged the viewer’s preconceptions about what it was they were actually watching?
In Megahey’s sumptuously shot film, Le Fanu’s completely fictional tale is augmented by documentary details concerning the working methods and social lives of the 17th century Leiden fijnschilders -- or ‘fine-painters’ -- and examines their milieu, while the themes already implied in the ghost story itself provide further subtextual underpinning that highlights certain ideas about the period without explicitly having to state them -- such as the commodification of culture and life during an era when the development of commerce in Amsterdam, and innovations in the banking system first road-tested in the Dutch Provinces with the founding of the first Central Exchange Bank, were transforming the art market of the period as well as the wider business setting. The artist community’s former religious patrons were now being replaced by tradesmen and businessmen who became the new arbiters of taste and aesthetics based on the types of works they were willing to commission and pay for. Rather than straight biblical scenes, those works were mainly portraits of the commissioning subjects themselves, or of their loved ones, painted in the rich colourful tones and smooth polished style that came to be associated with the Dutch school of the period, with its carefully composed candlelit miniatures depicting episodes of contemporary life which largely represented the interests and the values of the mercantile classes. The process by which commerce influences and dictates the artistic drive, and the conflict this might create in the life of the artist as he negotiates the two realms, becomes the unspoken subject of this hybrid piece of work, which is ostensibly a traditional Faustian tale about a devilish deal brokered from beyond the grave.
It is this genre-blurring object that “Schalcken the Painter” manages to achieve by reproducing on 16mm film, in a detached yet always meticulously painterly style, the elegant, highly baroque but mannered appearance of the school of work developed during this time by the followers of Rembrandt’s former pupil (of which Godfried Schalcken was one), the Leiden based Gerrit Dou -- with its trompe I’ oeil techniques of forced perspective and the dark, velvety burnished appearance of lush interiors lit by candlelight. The skills of designer Ann Ridley and Megahey’s regular lighting cameraman John Hooper were instrumental in recreating the painterly mise-en-scene of such works for the screen, with the resultant effect being that of a stylised immersion in period décor as well as the practices, set-up and appearance of an typical artist’s studio in the 17th century. The film has come to be seen as one of the most successful attempts to reproduce period painting on screen, rivalled only by Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon (1975), Derek Jarman’s “Caravaggio” (1986) and Peter Greenaway’s “The Draughtsman’s Contract” (1982). When combined with the clever device of having Charles Gray’s voice-over segueing seamlessly from narration taken word-for-word from Le Fanu’s original tale of macabre straight into art criticism, delivered in the kind of plummy lecture style you might expect to find in a conventional documentary film about art history, the film is lent a disorientating effect that has both the persuasiveness of historical document and the uncanniness of supernatural fiction. Some of this added narrated material analyses real works that were actually painted by the real Schalcken (on loan from galleries in Britain and America) as they are paraded before the camera, and some refers to a mock-up of the fictional painting which is at the centre of Le Fanu’s ghost story: although that piece is not known to exist in reality (Megahey conducted a search for it but failed to turn up anything), the scene it depicts and the disinterested manner in which the film unveils it to the viewer means the work feels close enough in style and subject matter to the kinds of subjects the real Schalcken actually did paint at the time, for it to be able successfully to fool us with its eerily authentic mood -- thus augmenting the feeling of verisimilitude which all good ghost stories require in order to produce their spine-chilling effects.
Megahey came to the BBC through its general traineeship programme, which allowed relative newcomers the chance to get into producing and directing almost straightaway. After spending a few years in BBC radio drama he transferred to the arts department, it having by then developed a reputation for being the perfect environment in which aspiring filmmakers could hone their skills; an environment which had provided a home in the past to some of Britain’s greatest modern directors, such as Ken Russell and John Schlesinger, both of whom had made arts documentaries for the BBC’s flagship “Monitor” and/or “Omnibus” arts series’ at the beginnings of their careers. Jonathan Miller’s “Omnibus” adaptation of M.R. James’ “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” had also provided an obvious template for Megahey’s proposed ghost story/documentary project, but the writer-producer held back from initial plans by the then-head of Music and Arts at the BBC to hand his screenplay over to Lawrence Gordon Clark to direct as part of his on-going Christmas Ghost Story strand, holding the script back until Megahey himself was put in charge of “Omnibus” three years later, and was able to commission his own work and securing German co-financing, thereby obtaining editorial and directorial control over the entirety of the production to boot. The themes and ideas about art and the corroding nature of commerce that Megahey makes so central to his adaptation of the story are already transparent in Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s original tale, but are also implied by the actual works the real Schalcken painted during his lifetime, with their cold, voyeuristic still-life depictions of the trappings of wealth and luxury, arranged in formal presentations of their subjects that frequently indicate a strangely disassociated obsession with the subtle processes by which human relationships are altered through being subjected to commodification. Paintings such as ‘Man Offering Gold and Coins to a Girl’ (painted between 1666-70) and ‘Allegory of Virtue and Riches’ (1667), the latter depicting a young woman cheerfully trying to assess the value of her dead pet sparrow by weighing it in a scales against her jewellery, hint at the very ideas Megahey homes in on in his expansion of Le Fanu’s otherwise quaint treatment of the Devil’s Bargain motif.
In the original story, Godfried Schalcken appears as a rather gauche, romantically inclined student of the artist Gerrit Dou, who secretly falls in love with his mentor’s pretty niece Rose Velderkaust, but is aware that, as a penniless student, he is in no position to offer himself as a suitor to his master’s ward. He thus undertakes the mighty task of turning himself into a successful artist by redoubling his efforts at learning his craft under Dou’s tutelage, staying on in the studio after formal lessons have finished for the day to apply himself to his studies with ever more determination so that he might eventually make a name for himself in the art world and thus become an acceptable prospective husband to Rose. One night, while working on a painting depicting the temptations of St Anthony, Schalcken is visited by a dark figure in a cloak who requests an audience with the young student’s master to take place at the same time the following evening. The strange visitant, who calls himself Vanderhausen, duly appears to Gerrit Dou the next day at the appointed hour, and gives the elderly artist a lead-lined casket full of gold ingots and jewellery which Schalcken is then told to take into town to have valued by a reputable goldsmith. While he’s gone, Vanderhausen proposes to exchange the fortune for Rose’s hand in marriage, with no questions asked. Unable to resist such a dowry Gerrit agrees, and Vanderhausen faithfully turns up for dinner the following evening to be presented to the woman who, unbeknownst to her, within days will be made the guest's wife. It is only now that the assembled gathering of Dou, Rose and Schalcken actually catch a glimpse of the rich stranger’s countenance for the first time, discovering it to be that of a hideous, sunken-eyed cadaver which, as Rose recognises, also looks very similar to the face of a carved statue she once saw in a church in Rotterdam while visiting the city with her uncle!
The contract has been signed and sealed however, and so the marriage must go ahead as agreed. Yet Dou and Schalcken are distressed when the bride and groom completely disappear without trace soon after, and all efforts to track them down at the address in Rotterdam supplied by Vanderhausen prove fruitless. Months pass, and ‘the impulse of love’ which once motivated Schalcken gives way to ‘that of ambition’ as he becomes the successful artist he always dreamed of being when his goal was to win Rose’s hand. But one night, Rose does at last materialise outside Gerrit Dou’s studio door while he and his student dine within; she comes to them in a highly agitated and terrified state, begging to be saved from a spectre that threatens to join the living with the dead in a way that should never be. Schalcken and Dou’s efforts to save Rose from the fate they have unwittingly bought for her prove inadequate however, and she once again disappears, leaving only the echo of her unearthly scream after she is abducted from her room by forces unknown. Years later, having been unable to get to the bottom of the incident and now mourning the death of Gerrit Dou himself, Schalcken visits his former teacher’s crypt in Rotterdam, falls asleep near the tomb and is assailed by a vision of Rose dressed in robes of white, who, after seeking a purse of gold coins as her payment from him, leads him towards his master’s resting place … which has now turned into a four-poster bed on which, sitting stiffly upright, Schalcken spies the deathly blue, corpse-like figure of Vanderhausen himself!
Megahey follows Le Fanu’s tale faithfully almost to a fault, but ekes out the slight narrative sparingly across 70 minutes of screen time by deliberately cultivating a languorous pace full of quiet moments of unhurried observation, resulting in the sombre, almost sterile air which buttresses the main theme of Le Fanu’s story with relevant social detail, often conveyed in imagery which documents the importance of such contemporary practices as the signing of contracts or the payment of artists models; the scurrying scratch of quill on parchment or the clink of coins in a purse often being the only sounds heard between interleafing bursts of Bach on harpsichord. The young female models are framed as part of the process of being groomed in order to be incorporated into the opulent images of wealth and beauty that mark this culture’s artistic output -- when, in reality, they were often – as is revealed in the film -- penniless street women who have first to be stripped, scrubbed, re-dressed and deloused before being sat before the artist’s easel, ready to cement the illusion they’ve been paid to supply.
The dinner scene, in which Vanderhausen turns up to meet Rose for the first time, brilliantly dramatizes the elegant frostiness in this contractual proceeding, the meal remaining untouched and the diners sitting in silence with only the scrape of expensive silverware -- as plates and cutlery are set before them and food is served then taken away untouched -- disrupting the formal aridness of this ritual demonstrating just how little say in her own fate a woman of the period might have. Megahey also makes use of the passage of years (skipped over in a sentence in Le Fanu’s story) between Rose’s disappearance and Dou’s death, in order to better illuminate the slow hardening of Schalcken’s heart as the craft he once honed to perfection out of love now becomes an end in itself -- a lifeless trade he merely pursues for profit without inspiration, except as perhaps a coded series of vignettes that signify the artist as someone who ‘spies on beauty but never possesses it.’
In this way, a completely fictional story is used to augment and provide an occult rationale for one of the few facts known about Schalcken’s life -- which is that while living in England for a short time in the late sixteen-hundreds (during which time he painted the Dutch protestant King William III, who had been recently invited to take the English throne after the removal of James II in the Glorious Revolution) he is said to have alienated the court with his poor manners and gruff demeanour. Symbolically, the constant juxtaposing of images of death (human skulls, stuffed animals) with those of luxury consumerism in art soon makes Megahey’s intentions more than clear. The film also re-unites Jeremy Clyde as Schalcken and John Justin as the undead Vanderhausen, both of whom had starred opposite each other three years before in the BBC horror anthology series “Supernatural”, in an episode entitled “Dorabella”. Here, though, Schalcken’s youthful inexperience slowly withering to dour cynicism as his success as an artist increases, parallels his pursuit of wealth with the loss of his soul, so that he gradually comes to resemble more and more the sepulchral Vanderhausen, even paying for prostitutes to recreate an impoverished parody of his love for Rose, just as his art often seems by implication to be doing the same thing.
John Justin was a former matinee idol and star of “The Thief of Bagdad” who was renowned in his youth for his good looks; but when combined with age his visage takes on an unnatural, exaggerated Jaggeresque quality, which turns out to lend its gaunt perfections perfectly towards the portrayal of a mournful living cadaver! Character actor Maurice Denham has one of those faces you recognise without necessarily being able to place where you’ve seen him before, but as the aging, money-orientated Gerrit Dou he is perfectly cast, his craggy patriarchal countenance adding to the cold mystique Megahey and Hooper conjure with their meticulous reconstruction of the Dutch baroque. Cheryl Kennedy’s Rose is a largely decorative presence, in line with the adaptation’s artistic portrayal of women as inscrutable, coquettish trophies to be bought or coveted, but her silent presence throughout the majority of the film as the prime object of commercial negotiations pays off in Megahey’s expansion on the original tale’s coda, where the necrophilic implications of Schalcken’s tomb-side revelry are made explicit in a scene where Rose cavorts starkers on top of her undead lover as he lies in his sepulchral bed.
Remastered in HD from a 16mm interpositive, “Schalcken the Painter” now looks as good as it could ever look, and although there is plenty of swarming grain apparent initially, the transfer soon settles down to provide a rich, colourful image with plenty of depth and warmth. The 39 minute documentary “Look into the Dark: The Making of Schalcken the Painter” consists of interviews with director-writer-producer Leslie Megahey on how the film came to be made and the influence of director Walerian Borowczyk’s “Blanche” (1971) on its imagery; while director of photography John Hooper talks about his crafting of the visual style of the piece, and how he set about reproducing the effects of the Dutch painters for its mise-en-scene reconstructions of their compositions.
Also included as extras on the disc, there are two thematically appropriate films from the long lost days of second feature cinema shorts: ”The Pit”, from 1961, was made with BFI backing courtesy of a donation from its Experimental Film Fund, and written and directed by Edward Abraham as a 25 minute Gothic short based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum”. Without the benefit of dialogue or narration, this intriguing and cleverly crafted film uses sound and visual texture conjured from expressionistic techniques and the use of shadow to illustrate the themes of dread and encroaching madness in the Poe original, although it probably has more value as a historical curiosity given that the director of “The Italian Job” Peter Collinson was its 1st AD.
Even better is its companion from 1981. Directed by Digby Rumsey this little-seen gem bears all the traits of classic British folk horror and is based on a short story by Irish writer of weird fiction Lord Dunsany. Ostensibly a slight tale about a trio of 18th century highwaymen who plot to ‘rescue’ the corpse of one of their comrades by the dead of night, and give it an appropriate burial beneath a bishop’s tomb in a country hillside graveyard, this becomes a mixture of sublime imagery rooted in the transformation of the English landscape with the changing of the seasons, juxtaposed with images of decay as the body of the felon progressively rots over time, left swinging on its lonely gibbet. Images from the life of the dead man whose body this once was are mixed with scenes of corporeal disintegration and natural states of change over an insistent (and brilliant) Michael Nyman cue, till one is left with the overwhelming impression of having borne witness to some previously undiscovered hybrid of Italian and British horror: it’s as though Lucio Fulci had moved to England during the filming of “The Beyond” and shot a sequel there based on “Witchfinder General”, complete with his signature rotting cadavers and their gaping maws crammed-full of earthworms and maggots! Unbelievably this played as a second feature to “Porkies” in the early eighties! It now makes for an extra reason for picking up this excellent release. There’s also an accompanying booklet with essays for each of the three films included, by Ben Hervey, James Bell and Vic Pratt respectively. Recommended.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!