Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film season, Schalcken the Painter has such a reputation it has been on the 'most wanted' lists of many fans of British telefantasy for decades. Here it is and remastered in high definition from the 16mm interpositive held in the BFI Archive and released in the Flipside range of obscure British films.
Writer, director and producer Megahey's career began in BBC radio where, after he graduated from his traineeship, he wrote and produced radio plays for a year. He joined the BBC's Music and Arts department and in 1967, along with other television trainees Tony Palmer, Alan Yentob and Nigel Williams, began making films about painters and writers under the auspices of pioneering television executive Stephen Hearst.
Megahey was as much an inspirational figure himself as Yentob, then a raw recruit, professed: 'Leslie was a little older than me and had arrived at the BBC by much the same route two years earlier. We became close friends and colleagues in the Music and Arts department of the BBC. Leslie's enthusiasm and commitment were infectious. Leslie was endlessly curious and was a great believer in finding inventive ways to tell stories.' (1)
It was this inventiveness Megahey brought to the drama-documentary form. His first full length film about a painter, The Performers (BBC, 1972), an exploration of the astonishing twists and turns of Goya's life, was produced under the editorship of Nigel Williams for Omnibus (BBC, 1967-2003) and it ushered in his signature use of dramatising scenes of the artist's work and a distanced narrator for what where technically documentary biographies.
In this way he was following a direct line from director Ken Russell (whom Megahey described as 'a true innovator') and his work, both for Omnibus and its predecessor Monitor, on Elgar (BBC 1962), The Debussy Film (BBC, 1965) and Song of Summer (BBC, 1968). During the 1970s Megahey continued to make 'personal essay films, where the dramatised parts evoked ideas and obsessions about the artist's work' covering such subjects as John Donne, Ligeti, Rodin and Gaugin. (2)
'brooding, sexy and gothic - and based in some kind of art historical reality'
Megahey and Humfress had wanted to make something 'brooding, sexy and gothic - and based in some kind of art historical reality' and Le Fanu's story, re-typed by Humfress and submitted to Megahey for his approval, fitted the bill. (3) He then researched 17th Century Dutch painting by visiting the Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie at The Hague. In the collections archive, he examined the documented work of Godfried Schalcken, the genre and portrait painter who was the inspiration for Le Fanu's story.
Schalcken was notable for representing scenes by candlelight and a number of paintings paralleled many of the scenes Megahey had incorporated into his own script: 'I was amazed at how prolific he was having never heard of him before. So the extra scenes, and the brothel incidents, were based on the Schalckens I had seen in Holland and on the images of deHooch and other painters.' (4) One painting - a girl holding a candle while in the background a man draws a sword - remained elusive, presumed destroyed. A mock-up was used in the finished film.
After showing a hand written screenplay, completed in the course of one night, to drama director Tristram Powell he was advised to add more dialogue and dramatisation, After struggling to expand the script when in reality he had no mind to, Megahey devised the opening, off screen introduction to the film where Schalcken poses his model and asks her rather ominously to 'look into the dark'.
In August 1976, he asked the acting Head of Music and Arts Norman Swallow to look at the script as 'an interesting offer from our department as a Christmas ghost story with a serious leaning towards the arts. It's a very unusual way to deal with the psyche of the artist and the conflicts between art and life.' Even at this stage, Megahey was thinking of raising co-production money from the Dutch Public Broadcasting company, Nos and sending the script to Vincent Price, asking him to play Le Fanu as the narrator. (5)
Offering it to director Lawrence Gordon Clark, who had been responsible for the superb M.R. James adaptations in A Ghost Story for Christmas since 1971, was mooted but Megahey was rather protective of the project, feeling he wanted to direct it himself. A commission was not forthcoming and the film remained unmade until Megahey became series editor of the Omnibus strand, taking over from Barry Gavin, and he could in effect commission himself. The opportunity therefore arose to make Schalcken the Painter with co-production finance from Rainer Moritz. This was serendipitous as the television BBC ghost story tradition could said to have begun with Omnibus and Jonathan Miller's Whistle and I'll Come to You in 1968.
Instead, the silky voiced charms of Charles Gray provided the framing voice over narrative, with the Le Fanu fiction delivered as both commentary and constructed fiction around real people and actual paintings. The opening sequence, of the painter Schalcken (Jeremy Clyde) hard at work on a portrait, flashes back to his apprenticeship with his master Gerrit Dou (Maurice Denham in a role originally considered for Arthur Lowe) and his pathetic attempts to woo the old man's niece and ward, Rose Velderkaust (Cheryl Kennedy).
A strange, chilling story unfolds in which the corruptible and miserly Dou sells off his niece to the ghoulish but aristocratic figure of Vanderhausen (John Justin) and Schalcken, in his fruitless attempt to find her, turns to prostitution - not only for sexual gratification but also for the commercial realisation of his art.
Justin had worked with Megahey on radio and was part of a small repertory company of supporting actors the director regularly used. Jeremy Clyde was cast because he bore an uncanny resemblance to the Schalcken self portraits and Cheryl Kennedy embodied not just the 'creamy looks of a Vermeer model' but also Rose's fierce intelligence. (7)
The low budget production was confined to several small sets, replications of exteriors made in studio and the brothel interior, and one large set for the interior of Dou's house. Megahey's core team comprised of editor Paul Humfress, lighting cameraman John Hooper and designer Anna Ridley. All three had previously worked on Megahey's films.
Ridley worked closely with Megahey and Hooper to recreate the signature look of Dutch paintings, particularly Vermeer and Rembrandt. Hooper lit the sets with miniature spot lights, opted for large areas of the frame to tail off into inky blackness and pushed the exposures to encompass candlelight and subtle colours. 'A most important design feature of the shooting was the lining up of doors within doors. While we were on the set we pinned up a lot of repros of Dutch paintings on a board to refer to while lighting and shooting,' Megahey recalled and he also strove to capture a certain authenticity in the sequences where Schalcken was painting. (8) Ridley employed an art consultant, Paul Martin, to advise on the recreation and production of many of the paintings in the film.
It's certainly a mise-
'... allegories warning the viewer to take care to live a life of virtue and realise your immortal soul will have more weight than your possessions'
The image is reproduced again when the narrator asks us to consider a particular painting, one of a woman holding a candle before such a drapery while a man draws a sword in the background. Some terrible shape also lurks in the darkness behind the coquettishly smiling woman. The image of drapery unveiling something uncanny and unpleasant in the shadows reoccurs in the film.
We are taken back to Gerrit Dou's studio in 1665, during Schalcken's apprenticeship, to understand the terrible significance of this painting. In Dou's house, Megahey crams in as many references as he can, often opulent tableaux, to underline the film's themes and the allusions to art of the period - the goods of exchange, consumerism, commodification and the price of everything and anyone.
Game birds, hanging rabbits and dried flowers slowly move out of frame as the camera replicates the perspective of Vermeer's 'Woman Holding A Balance'. We see Gerrit Dou counting his money. It acknowledges a genre of painting, which depicted various civilians counting money or weighing gold, presented as allegories warning the viewer to take care to live a life of virtue and realise your immortal soul will ultimately have more weight than your possessions. It summarises the theme of Schacklen the Painter perfectly.
Right from the opening scene Megahey is preoccupied with commerce and the notion that everything, including sex and death, is up for sale in Schalcken's world. The image of the balance is repeated when Schalcken takes Vanderhausen's box of gold coins to be valued before Dou accepts it as payment for his niece and, again, when Schalcken poses a woman with a balance holding a dead bird and jewellery for one of his paintings.
The notion of value, of the real Gerrit Dou's 'real respect for money' and the aggrandising of art and money over 'the transports of love' are present and correct in Le Fanu's original story. As Simon Schama noted, seventeenth-century Dutch painters insisted on reminding those whom appreciated their work wealth was transitory and death and God's final judgment were ever looming and materiality was fleeting when compared to divine salvation or damnation. (9)
Rose is of course the antithesis of this very male, moneyed world. We first see her revealed by a gentle pan across the studio and caught in a faithfully mounted reproduction of Vermeer's 'Young Woman Standing at a Virginal' playing a refrain on the keyboard. Music was one of the most popular themes in Dutch painting and carried many diverse associations. In portraits, a musical instrument or songbook might suggest the education or social position of the sitter and refer to the idea of faithfulness to one lover or, in conjunction with the virginal, to the traditional association of music and love.
Damnation is the course that both Gerrit Dou and his pupil Schalcken are set upon (many shots contain a skull as a visual reminder of their fate). Dou's greed knows no bounds and he eventually sells his pretty ward to Vanderhausen, the Death figure who drops in for dinner and demands her as his concubine. Le Fanu's tale then inverts Schalcken's fate. He becomes as in demand as his old master and just as corruptible.
At first unrequited in love and then plagued with guilt when he fails to rescue Rose from the clutches of Vanderhausen, he finds solace in the beds of prostitutes. That reversal of fortune aligns Schalcken not only with his greedy master but also with the figure of Death personified by Vanderhausen. The realisation is 'The old possess money and power and the right to dispose of the young as they see fit, the most powerful being the oldest and wealthiest and, in fact, dead'. (10)
Megahey achieves this not through Sturm und Drang but by subtle degree. The interior of the studio, the exercise of painting and the awkward courting between Schalcken and Rose seek to domesticate the Gothic. The camera is often static or very slowly panning or tracking in contrast to the continual movement of figures through doorways and in and out of rooms. Gradually, unease is generated.
When Rose is lost to the predations of the deathly Vanderhausen, Schalcken uses the creation of her portrait as a form of exorcism, 'an attempt to distance and interpret a dream' just as Le Fanu's narrator reinterprets it for the reader and viewer. (11) There's an amusing scene where Dou is instructing his students and posing his models for a tableaux of 'The Temptation of Saint Anthony'. After identifying an old man and a luscious young woman as the titular saint and his nemesis, he casually instructs his pupils, 'devils, you will imagine the devils'.
Indeed, as a result Schalcken conjures up the haunted figure of Vanderhausen. A brilliant, subtle shot shows Schalcken at work on his painting of Anthony. It is not going well and upon the cry of 'Damn the picture, damn the devils and the saints. Damn the lot of them to hell' a slow camera pan to the left of the screen reveals the spectre literally sitting at the shoulder of the artist and emerging from the gloom behind him.
At the tolling of a bell, the strike of a clock and the creak of a floorboard Vanderhausen demands an audience with Dou. Sound and music is used very creatively in the film. The scratching of pens on parchment and charcoal on canvas, the chiming of clocks, cutlery scraping on plates and busy footsteps provide a domestic soundscape which is then augmented by an ominous, rising bass note to signal the impending appearance of the demonic lover Vanderhausen.
Megahey takes his cue from Le Fanu and sets out to disjoint reality and our expectations of the ghost story on television, as noted by Simon Cooke: 'Le Fanu’s light and dark is a symbolic exemplification of the uncertainties of reality, a frightening space where nothing is fixed, and Megahey creates a strong visual equivalent which preserves the story’s sense of ‘ill-defined' menace and strangeness.' (12)
This is matched by Megahey's own playfulness with narrative and documentary techniques describing the lives of artists, their milieu and the power of the personal commission. The personal commission comes in all forms - the selling of portraiture and the selling of the living to the dead.
Rose becomes the 'object of our contract' according to Vanderhausen. She, Dou and Schalcken lose their appetite when they finally cast their eyes upon the gaunt visage of her husband to be, the 'very rich friend' for whom she 'must trick her self out handsomely', at their gloomy, candlelit dinner.
John Hooper's control of lighting in this scene is quite stunning with the dinner table and diners marooned in inky blackness save for the guttering candlelight. When Vanderhausen takes his seat, his ornate coat glistens wetly and he looks as if freshly emerged, rotting, from one of the canals. There are glimpses of his pale, drawn face, alluding back to the many skulls placed within the working space of the artists' studio, framed between glowing candles as food is served and left untouched. The skull, which Megahey places in many scenes throughout the film, quotes Pieter Claesz's painting 'Vanitas' and its reminder of the certainty of death.
The dinner ends with the narrator simply underlining Dou's 'heartlessness' at binding his niece to this creature. The real tragedy is Schalcken's fecklessness as Rose urges a plan upon him to elope before she is contracted to Vanderhausen. All he can offer is paint and canvas as a way of saving money to buy out the contract but, more truthfully, 'Schalcken, with at least one foot inside the establishment pale, cannot directly confront the horror that haunts him, perhaps because he is implicated in it. He can paint it only indirectly as part of his attempt to minimize his own guilt and failure.' (13)
And so Rose departs and leaves behind her shoes. Like a quasi-Cinderella figure, with her Prince Charming rather slow off the mark, she succumbs to the deathly sexuality of Vanderhausen. E. de Jong, one of the leading Dutch specialists in symbolism, regards these so-called pantoffel, shoes without backs, as one of the top ten erotic symbols in Dutch painting of the seventeenth century.
The scene reflects such paintings as 'The Slippers', by van Hoogstraten, which was an allegory of lust and temptation. The missing Rose is later the object of the unfaithful Schalcken's search in Rotterdam but his distraction by the alluring delights of a brothel, the temptations of the flesh, emphasises the images of women as commercial sex objects. They also capture the visual intensity of Schalcken's own paintings of women by candlelight.
‘the dead and the living cannot be one’rhythm of the film. The slow pace is replaced by swift camera moves and a crane shot, breaking the dominance of horizontal camera moves with an emphatic vertical, as she takes refuge in a bedroom before being snatched away again by her demon lover.
There is a brooding intensity to the scene and Rose's claim of ‘the dead and the living cannot be one’ not only highlights the tale's Gothic trappings but also signifies that creativity and emotion, her musicality and Schalcken's talent, cannot be wedded to the dead hand of commerce and its moral bankruptcy. Rose's terror, her emotional state, momentarily disrupts an all male, dispassionate milieu which is 'possessed and animated by the spirit of avarice'. (14)
There is a sense, after Schalcken is terrified by a vision of the dead Rose making love to Vanderhausen in the crypt of St. Laurence's church at the end of the film, that the tables are turned. Incidentally, the church is referred to several times - Rose recognises Vanderhausen from a tomb effigy after previously visiting the church; Schalcken meets a coach driver who brought her and Vanderhausen to the church - and is codified as the ultimate Gothic space. Here death and sex merge together.
Schalcken is seduced into entering the crypt by the vision of Rose only to find himself unable to escape the hellish act of debauchery she subjects him to. When he offers her money and she tips his purse onto the floor, Rose underlines 'the power of wealth over love... reducing Schalken to the status of a client who failed to pay enough, or, perhaps, a pimp who sold his ‘love’ for the greatest profit.' (15)
Rose has discovered the 'marriage bed' is as cold as a tomb and in the final scene her and Vanderhausen's lovemaking in the crypt is a translation of Dou's equally claustrophobic, emotionally empty, dark house. It is also the trigger for Schalcken to project his guilt into the painting we see him feverishly completing in the pre-titles sequence and later in another flash forwards. After tantalising him with the goods he has so longed for and reduced him to failed rescuer and rejected lover, Schalcken attempts to redress the balance. The figure with the drawn sword is a vain attempt to paint himself as 'hero' perhaps. Le Fanu's interlacing narrative folds inwards.
Megahey's film both embraces the television ghost story and almost elevates it to documentary. Le Fanu's fiction and Megahey's production weave between a treatise on Dutch painting and a Gothic chiller, entwining the Gothic tale within the reception of a television arts documentary strand and evoking Freud's notion of the 'uncanny' in the traditions of art history and the deeper symbolism of Dutch painting.
(1) Sarah Brown, Moving On Up
(2) Phil Tonge, interview with Leslie Megahey, 'Look into the dark' in Creeping Flesh: The Horror Fantasy Film Book Vol.2.
(3) and (4) Ibid
(5) Interview with Leslie Megahey, 'Look into the Dark' on Schalcken the Painter BFI DVD
(7) Phil Tonge, interview with Leslie Megahey, 'Look into the dark' in Creeping Flesh: The Horror Fantasy Film Book Vol.2.
(9) James Swafford, 'Tradition and Guilt in Le Fanu's "Schalken the Painter"', The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, Vol. 14, No. 2
(12) Simon Cooke, 'The Demon in the House: Le Fanu at the British Broadcasting Corporation' in Le Fanu Studies 3. 2008. No. 2
(13) James Swafford, 'Tradition and Guilt in Le Fanu's "Schalken the Painter"', The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, Vol. 14, No. 2
(14) Simon Cooke, 'The Demon in the House: Le Fanu at the British Broadcasting Corporation' in Le Fanu Studies 3. 2008. No. 2
About the transfer
Grain is abundant but that is hardly surprising as this is transfered from a 16mm interpositive. There are occasional flecks of dirt but overall this is a very welcome presentation after years of looking at very murky, fuzzy bootleg copies of the film. Even though the image is soft, the clarity of this remaster yields up details in the sets, props, costumes and faces and the subtleties of Hooper's cinematography. This is seen particularly in the red and green colour washes gently bathing key scenes and his effective use of candlelight. The contrast, along with the grain, gives this a thick texture and for the most part it is fairly robust and provides the appropriate levels of blackness. Don't expect this to pop off the screen but do relish the opportunity to 'look into the dark' at last and see the details of a handsome looking film. Sound is crisp and clear with little hiss and other discrepancies such as clicks.
The Pit (Edward Abraham, 1962, 27 mins)
An experimental gothic short, adapted from Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Pit and the Pendulum', The Pit is a powerful visual poem without dialogue. It does remain quite faithful to Poe's original although the ending is darker and nastier. Gregory Lawson's design is very strong and the film is dominated by a superb use of sound.
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. One of a series of short films shot by Digby Rumsey and based on 'The Highwayman' by noted Irish 'Weird Fiction' writer Lord Dunsany. The BFI describes it thus: 'At the heart of this evocative tale is a gloriously well-realised corpse, creakily dangling from the gallows. As the highwayman's sinful life is slowly revealed, the jarring contrast between the stillness of death and the bawdy rigour of life is vividly reflected'. An interview with Digby Rumsey can be found at Celluloid Wickerman.
Look Into the Dark (2013, 39 mins)
A significant interview with director/producer/writer Leslie Megahey and director of photography John Hooper about the development and production of Schalcken the Painter. Megahey discusses the original script, raising the funding and the themes and ideas in the film. Hooper discusses the use of chiaroscuro lighting and the influence of Dutch paintings on the look of the film.
With new essays by Ben Hervey, James Bell and Vic Pratt
Schalcken the Painter
Transmitted 23rd December 1979
BFI Flipside Cat. No 028 / Cat No. BFIB1184 / Cert 15 / Colour / English language with optional hard of hearing subtitles / 70 mins / Original aspect ratio 1.33:1
Disc 1: BD50 / 1080p / 24fps / PCM mono audio (48k/16-bit)
Disc 2: DVD9 / PAL / Dolby Digital mono audio (320kbps)