Schalcken the Painter (1979)

ThePainter2BFI Flipside’s Schalcken the Painter is a welcome reissue of a BBC film originally broadcast late on December 23 1979. I remember watching it on the tiny black and white portable in my bedroom as I shivered under the duvet, and not just from the winter cold.

Based upon a short story by Carmilla author J Sheridan Le Fanu, Schalcken the Painter weaves a chilling tale of terror around the life of the 17th century Dutch painter Godfried Schalcken (1647-1708). A student of Gerrit Dou (Maurice Denham) Schalcken (Jeremy Clyde) falls for his master’s daughter Rose (Cheryl Kennedy), but when the cadaverous Vanderhausen (John Justin) offers Dou a fortune to make a wedding contract with Rose, Schalcken sets his ambition as a painter above his love for Rose and eschews the opportunity to elope with her. Naturally Vanderhausen, who has the disturbing habit of letting himself in without using the door, isn’t exactly normal, and the final spine chilling reveal, now as then, will make your blood run cold.

ThePainter1This film is a slow burn atmospheric shocker and getting to see it once more after so many years, in the full colour splendour of the BFI Blu-ray release, was a revelation. It’s a strange hybrid of documentary and drama, director Leslie Megahey was running the BBC’s arts programme Omnibus at the time, but Schalcken was also conceived to fill the Christmas ghost story (usually an adaptation of MR James) spot that had been cancelled in 1978. Every shot in the film is composed in the manner of a 17th century Dutch master painting in the style of Vermeer, Rembrandt (who was Dou’s tutor and makes a blink and you will miss it guest appearance) and Schalcken himself, so it’s a real visual feast very much in the way that Peter Greenaway was to make his own in films like The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) or Drowning by Numbers (1988).

Schalcken the Painter dates from a period of great creativity at the BBC when producers could get projects green-lighted without too much interference from the accountants and marketing men that dominate the industry today. I doubt that such a creative project would get made there today.

A treat for the eyes and chill in the blood I give it a big 666.

As part of the BFI’s Gothic season, Schalcken the Painter is due to be screened at London’s  National Gallery on 4 January 2014 where director Leslie Megahey and cinematographer John Hooper will also be in conversation with the Gallery’s curator of Dutch and Flemish paintings Betsy Wildman. There are four of Schalcken’s paintings in the National. Sounds like a rather splendid event, tickets are available here.

Image sourced from davidhewson.wordpress.com

Image sourced from davidhewson.wordpress.com

DVD extras include:

Look into the Dark, featuring interviews with director Leslie Megahey and cinematographer John Hooper.

The Pit, an atmospheric black and white BBC short from 1962 based upon Edgar Allen Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum.

Original production design sketches from The Pit

The Pledge, a gruesome BBC short from 1982 based upon Lord Dunsany’s The Highwayman where three criminals who pledge to free the soul of their gruesomely gibbeted pal. This is an interesting work since it features cinematography by Peter Greenaway and music by Michael Nyman foreshadowing their later film collaborations. The study of decay in this film prefigures similar ideas in Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts (1985).

Schalcken the Painter is availiable at www.bfi.org.uk/shop and other retailers.

Image sourced by hssr.mmu.ac.uk

Image sourced by hssr.mmu.ac.uk

If you enjoy Schalcken the Painter you might also enjoy:

The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover (1989): Michael Gambon gives a Grand Guignol performance as Spica the master criminal who holds court in Le Hollandais, an exclusive restaurant, while his wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) conducts an affair with one of the other diners. Directed in Flemish painterly style by Peter Greenaway and with Nyman’s contemporary take on the Baroque score it doesn’t end well for the Lover or the Thief. Watch out for a rare acting performance from Ian Drury as Terry Fitch.

Review by Simon Ball

Connect with Simon: @RealShipsCook or here.

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