First aired on the BBC on 23rd December 1979, Leslie Mehagey’s Schalcken the Painter is lush, weird, postmodern and creepy. Based on Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1839 ghost story, both works craft an unsettling fiction around real 17th-century Dutch painters, Godfried Schalcken and his tutor, Gerrit Dou. Pitching his script as an arts lecture that morphs into a horror story, Megahey plays with Le Fanu’s use of historical figures by presenting the film as a documentary, a trick aided by its screening as part of the arts series Omnibus. The film meticulously recreates the interiors made famous by the Dutch masters, lifting them from the gallery wall, and having our protagonists inhabit them.
The film’s opening is slow and elegant, establishing Dou (Maurice Denham) and Schalcken (Jeremy Clyde) as deeply unsympathetic characters. Despite the film’s aesthetic beauty, the events it depicts are ugly, as Dou willingly sells his young niece, Rose (Cheryl Kennedy), into a grotesque but lucrative marriage. Despite his sincere affections for Rose, Schalcken is so paralysed by his own aspiration to succeed as an artist under Dou that he does nothing to help the woman he claims to love.
The film works on two levels: firstly, as a slow-burning morality tale in which we wait with unpleasant anticipation for Schalcken’s punishment; and secondly, as a critique on the relationship between art and commerce, sex and money. Thus we return to the ghost story as arts lecture, with the film commenting on the commodification of 17th-century Dutch painting, where private patronage led artists away from spiritual or lyrical subjects towards depicting the plush interiors of the people controlling the purse-strings.
As for the film’s Schalcken, after he trades passion for ambition, we spy on him visiting a parade of prostitutes and employing peasants as models, who we watch undress and pose. A product of its time, Schalcken the Painter is part feminist attack on the brutality of marriage contracts, part exploitation movie as we’re treated to plenty of female flesh. However, the film’s climactic scene undercuts any earlier titillation with an image that is horrific, as opposed to erotic.
The film’s Gothic flashes, matched with the deadpan conceit that what we are watching is a documentary, intensify the contrast between the veracity of the film’s period details and its supernatural elements. In particular, the real Schalcken’s celebrated representation of candlelight is exquisitely mimicked, and yet it is this feature of his painting that is dramatised to suggest the corruption of the character’s soul.
It’s difficult to imagine this as festive viewing. But like Jonathan Miller’s stunning adaptation of M. R. James’s Whistle and I’ll Come To You, also produced by Omnibus for the BBC’s BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series, this is no cosy Dickensian tale. Yet where Miller’s work is visceral, Schalcken the Painter is typified by a cold restraint, like the paintings it honours. However, beneath its cool intellectualism there lurks a pessimism about the human condition that chills to the bone.
A cult classic, not to be missed.