Director: Leslie Megahey
Cast: Jeremy Clyde, Maurice Denham, Cheryl Kennedy, John Justin, Anne Tirard
Length: 70 min
Rating: BBFC 15
Disks: 2 (1 BD, 1 DVD)
Label: BFI Flipside
Release Date: Nov 18th, 2013
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Audio: English: PCM 2.0 Mono
- Presented in both High Definition and Standard Definition
- The Pit (Edward Abraham, 1962, 27 mins): experimental gothic short, adapted from Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’
- Original sketches for The Pit
- The Pledge (Digby Rumsey, 1982, 21 mins): three criminals pledge to free the soul of their friend from his gibbeted corpse in this short film based on ‘The Highwayman’ by Lord Dunsany
- Look Into the Dark (2013, 39 mins): interviews with director/writer/producer Leslie Megahey and director of photography John Hooper on the making of Scha!cken the Painter
- Illustrated booklet with new essays by Ben Hervey, James Bell and Vic Pratt; complete film credits
BFI Flipside has released Schalcken the Painter (1979), an obscure horror drama about star-crossed lovers separated by an ominous figure in the art world of 17th-century Holland. This rarely seen BBC TV-movie stars Jeremy Clyde (Kaspar Hauser), Maurice Denham (Curse of the Demon), John Justin (The Thief of Bagdad – 1940) and Cheryl Kennedy (The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins). The narrator is Charles Gray (best known as Mocata in The Devil Rides Out and the Criminologist in The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Schalcken the Painter was directed by Leslie Megahey (The Hour of the Pig) and is based on Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter—a horror story by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, the author of Carmilla.
With such a cast and pedigree, one would expect fireworks, but Schalcken the Painter is deliberately paced and not for all tastes. It is a slow-moving affair in which Godfried Schalcken—a shy, impoverished art student in Leiden—falls in love with his patron’s niece Rose, but won’t ask for her hand in marriage because he cannot provide for her. Late one night, a wealthy, older suitor named Vanderhausen turns up at art instructor Gerrit Dou’s home, offering him a fabulous dowry if he will sign a contract pledging Rose to be his wife. Dou heartlessly accepts the offer, even though Rose finds Vanderhausen hideous and repulsive—if not downright ghoulish.
The moments of true horror that reveal themselves focus on John Justin, whose performance (although superb) isn’t as memorable as his physical appearance. In the 1930s and 1940s, Justin was one of Great Britain’s most handsome leading men, starring in such fondly remembered pictures as The Sound Barrier and King of the Khyber Rifles. Age wasn’t kind to him, and Justin’s face is a mask of horror in Schalcken the Painter, blackened and distorted. His bloodshot eyes study Rose with a sordid and naked desire. Justin was then 62, and looked ancient (with or without makeup). We gradually discover that Vanderhausen is not just an ugly, imperious old man, but Death personified, come from Rotterdam to take a lusty young bride. The final scene in which Schalcken witnesses a slatternly Rose (after an unsuccessful escape attempt) make love to Death/Vanderhausen in the crypt of a church is a fairly graphic onscreen depiction of necrophilia—and it’s a wonder it got past the censors.
After leaving Dou’s studio, Schalcken—a real-life Flemish artist whose paintings hang in the Louvre and Buckingham Palace—produced morbid and atmospheric images drenched in black paint, often precisely reproducing the effect of candlelight. It is this dramatic shift in style away from standard portraiture that piqued Le Fanu’s curiosity. What accounted for the darkening of Schalcken’s sensibilities? (Another unsettling image in Schalcken the Painter is an art class in which students are asked to paint the Temptation of Saint Anthony, working from a withered, elderly, semi-naked, white-bearded male model being “tempted” by a young blonde revealing an ample breast—a forerunner to the horrific scene in which Rose makes love to the “dead man”—or is Vanderhausen, who only appears at night, a quasi-vampire?)
John Hooper’s remarkable cinematography on Schalcken the Painter, (not to mention production and costume design by Anna Ridley and Christine Rawlins), alone makes the film worth seeing. Almost every shot is composed like a painting by the Dutch masters—the earthy colors, the composition, the way people are framed in doorways, even the natural film grain—all conspire to give the uncanny texture of a 17th-century painting come to life. The good news is that BFI has resisted cleaning and filtering this film to death, so we get to enjoy all the wonderful, organic texture of the original film elements. The image is not very sharp, and the grain gets heavy at times, but this is how the film was meant to be seen. Remarkably, John Hooper has only this one film credit in the IMDb.
The PCM Mono audio track copes perfectly with the engaging harpsichord soundtrack, as well as some of the more modern sound design. Hiss is not an issue, and the life-like, mostly domestic, ambiance comes over with cinematic fidelity. Dialog is also crystal clear.
Due to the main attraction’s short runtime of 68 minutes, this release comes with a wealth of bonus material. Among the extras are The Pit, BFI’s 27-minute black-and-white experimental adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum directed by Edward Abraham in 1962. The disc also includes Fantasy Films’ 21-minute The Pledge (1982) directed by Digby Rumsey and based on the story The Highwayman by fantasy writer Lord Dunsany. This HD movie, presented in color and widescreen, follows the adventures of three criminals who try to free the soul of their friend hanging from a gibbet, bones picked clean by circling crows. Music is by Michael Nyman (The Piano) and editing by Peter Greenaway (The Draughtsman’s Contract). In some ways, these short subjects are more accessible than Schalcken the Painter.
Look Into The Dark is a 40-minute documentary on the making of Schalcken the Painter. Writer/director Leslie Megahey speaks at great length about his movie and is joined by director of photography John Hooper, who examines the rigorous and demanding technical side of the production, including the extensive use of candlelight, possibly inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 costume epic Barry Lyndon. Megahey owns up to the influence of Walerian Borowczyk’s Blanche, a 1972 historical romance about the young wife of a much older baron who is irresistible to every man she meets, including her stepson.
Schalcken The Painter dabbles in sex and death (with dusky Death reaching out to make love to a winsome lass) but is as slow-moving as an Andrei Tarkovsky film. BFI Flipside is to be commended for bringing us a film, in a fine transfer, which will be unfamiliar to most horror aficionados. And those horror connoisseurs who enjoy offbeat horror entertainment with a European cachet such as Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf and Jean Renoir’s Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier will find much to admire in Schalcken The Painter. It is lovingly photographed, with stellar performances and a realistic atmosphere that captures the feel of the Dutch artistic milieu of the era of Rembrandt van Rijn—all the more remarkable in that the film was shot entirely at BBC Ealing Studio in London. Some may find Schalcken The Painter rather turgid—except for those minutes of footage in which the monstrous John Justin appears from nowhere to creep out the viewer—but this unique film is worth seeing and forming an opinion on.