Based on Sheridan LeFanu’s “Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter” (1839), Leslie Megahey’s film is an arty horror piece produced for the Omnibus programme, during the Beeb’s fondly-remembered “tits-n-bums” period. The film’s measured pace allows for a meticulous recreation of period detail, often using the works of Vermeer as a template, not to mention a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the practicalities of a painter’s studio in 17th Century Holland (including, for instance, several oils-in-progress and the production of an engraving plate using a pin-pricked drawing and charcoal powder). This sense of interior stillness, reproduced through largely static camera setups and “realistic” lighting à la Barry Lyndon (with much use of candles and natural light), is so meticulous that it starts to become almost overbearing – and it’s just at this point that Megahey cannily slips in the supernatural meat of the tale. Ahem.
Godfried Schalcken (Jeremy Clyde), an ambitious artist apprenticed to the famed Gerard Dou (Maurice Denham), has taken a fancy to Dou’s niece Rose (Cheryl Kennedy) but has not yet dared to voice his attachment. Painting alone one evening in the studio, Schalcken is surprised by the near-silent arrival of sinister nobleman Vanderhausen (John Justin), who promises to return again at the same time the following night to speak with Dou. True to his word, Vanderhausen does indeed reappear the next evening (and in the same eerie fashion, materialising out of the shadows in the hallway), and is quick to lay his cards on the table – along with a chest of gold coins, representing a considerable fortune. Vanderhausen intends this as a down-payment for Rose’s hand in marriage, and has drawn up a contract binding Dou to the match. The old man overcomes his initial qualms, reasoning that he has secured his niece a fine husband (and himself a few bob into the bargain); Schalcken can only observe the transaction in impotent grief. Rose meets Vanderhausen for the first time during an excruciatingly awkward meal at Dou’s home, during which none of the diners can bear to touch their food – put off, oddly, by Vanderhausen’s cadaverous presence and the almost palpable aura of death which surrounds him. (Even the clocks are struck dumb at his presence, resuming their ticking only after he’s left.)
Rose is horrified to learn she’s been sold off to the corpselike aristo, and feels doubly betrayed by Schalcken’s reluctance to stick up for her with Dou. (Weakly, he promises to “buy back” her contract once he’s made a name for himself; unsurprisingly, she considers this a cowardly evasion.) Vanderhausen duly collects his new “property” and the two rattle off in a carriage to Rotterdam, there to be married in fine style. But as the months pass, and nothing further is heard either from Rose or her new husband, Dou and Schalcken begin to fear the worst. Schalcken travels to Rotterdam to seek out Vanderhausen, only to find nobody there has ever heard of him… Despondent, Schalcken returns home, resigning himself to the loss of his true love. But one evening, responding to a frantic hammering on his front door, he is amazed to find Rose has returned home, covered in bruises and scratches and desperate for the ministrations of a priest. In terror for her life, jabbering about the living and the dead, she begs not to be left alone in the dark. Schalcken conducts her to the bedroom, but she recoils in horror at what appears to be the shadow of a man moving behind the bed. Schalcken draws back the curtains to show there is nothing there, and in her exhaustion Rose allows herself to lie back on the bed; and in a tragic lapse of judgement, Schalcken leaves her alone for a moment to fetch a candle. Suddenly, the door slams shut and a horrible scream issues from the bedroom. When Schalcken finally manages to pull the door open, Rose has vanished… But for Schalcken, the worst is yet to come.
The climax of the show, in which we learn the inspiration for a certain painting by Schalcken – a highly disturbing portrait of an inviting young girl in a nightgown, face lit by a candle, with Something Unseen lurking beside her in the shadows – is genuinely disturbing stuff, and astonishingly transgressive for a BBC production. Exploring a sinister crypt, Schalcken sees a vision of his beloved Rose, beckoning him further into the darkness. She takes him into an ornate bedchamber, where she draws back the curtains with a leer – revealing the grey corpse of Vanderhausen in the bed, who sits up like Nosferatu in his crate. Rose strips off her shift and, before the horrified Schalcken’s eyes, starts to have sex with the monster. (The nightmarish quality of this scene, candle-lit and shot in slow-motion, is enhanced by Jeremy Clyde’s inability to flee the scene: he tries to run but is rooted to the spot, an effect apparently achieved by tying him by elastic to the bed-frame. It’s extraordinarily unnerving.) Strong stuff; one can only imagine the reaction of frail Daily Mail readers to this necrophile show-stopper. Let’s look on the bright side: perhaps it sent a few of them to their eternal reward.
This new high-def restoration from the BFI is pretty good, though the combination of low light levels and cheap 16mm film stock inevitably means it’s grainy as hell. (Happily, the grunginess only adds to the verisimilitude.) Not having read the original story, I can only assume Megahey’s adaptation is pretty faithful in most particulars – only the Seventies nudity (and, presumably, rumpy-pumpy finale) stand out as modern enhancements, and very nice enhancements they are too. Charles Gray supplies his usual effortless gravitas as the voice of LeFanu, narrating his tale with dry matter-of-factness – “I have no sentimental scenes to describe…the record I have to make is one of heartlessness.” The rest of the cast are likewise very fine, even down to the artists’ models (blandly submitting to being half-stripped, day after day, under one “religious” pretext or another), with Cheryl Kennedy being particularly good as the doomed niece. (And Justin succeeds in conveying an eternal, unquenchable longing – of the dead for the living – in just a couple of ghastly close-ups.) All in all, a classy production, as intelligent as it is chilling.
Postscript. Interesting to note that the painting actually seen in the film is a mock-up, made by the Beeb’s art department. Megahey apparently rifled through hundreds of Schalcken works in search of the piece, but never found it; still, you’d never know the version seen here wasn’t the genuine article.