If the medium of film is to be considered a legitimate art form then this memorable BBC period piece from 1979 is probably as close as you can get to a living painting on screen. Schalcken the Painter, a seldom-seen horror story set in 17th century Holland and newly released by the BFI as part of their Gothic series, has earned cult status over the years as much for its scarcity as its ability to shock. Though Leslie Megahey’s short television movie is unsettling in its content, it’s the production’s visual style and overall appearance as much as any physical horror which lingers in the viewer’s mind long after it’s finished.
Whilst studying art under the tutelage of master painter Gerrit Dou (Maurice Denham), the young Schalcken (Jeremy Clyde) falls in love with Dou’s niece Rose (Cheryl Kennedy). However when Rose is betrothed to the wealthy stranger Vanderhausen (John Justin), and with Dou cast into guilt and misery at losing his niece, it is left to Schalcken to try and get her back with disastrous results. The overriding feeling of Schalcken the Painter is one of seeping dread and decay with the story’s unsettling proceedings playing out against the backdrop of what looks like a real painting from the 17th century golden age of Dutch art. Indeed, the recreation of the period settings are so believable that you can almost feel the dust and decay.
None of this is to say that the story, adapted by Megahey from Sheridan Le Fanu’s original source text, isn’t itself distinctly disturbing. From the visitations by the sinister Vanderhausen and his ‘stealing’ of Rose from her family, combined with Schalcken’s ineffectualness at expressing his love for Rose and protecting her from her deadly suitor, Schalcken the Painter derives its horror as much from inference and suggestion as from any physical manifestations. Accompanying the release in both high and standard definition are two other dramatisations, including an experimental take on Edgar Allen Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum as well as The Pledge – based on The Highwayman by that little-known 20th century practitioner of menace and fantasy, Lord Dunsany.