Saturday 23 November 2013

Schalken the Painter

As a dual format edition from the BFI this came in both blu ray and DVD. Only having a DVD player, this was obviously the version I watched.

What you get is Schalken the Painter, based on the Le Fanu story, broadcast by the BBC in 1979, two short films: The Pit (Edward Abraham, 1962, 27 mins) and The Pledge (Digby Rumsey, 1981, 21 mins), interviews with the director of Schalken, Leslie Megahey, and director of photography John Hooper on the making of the film (Look Into the Dark), some original production sketches for The Pit (which is based on the Poe story), and a fully illustrated and very informative booklet with essays by Ben Hervey, James Bell and Vic Pratt.

Obviously the main feature is Schalken the Painter, a gorgeously filmed adaptation of the Le Fanu story, narrated by Charles Grey, and starring Jeremy Clyde as Schalken, Maurice Denham as his mentor Dou, Cheryl Kennedy as Rose, Dou's ward, and John Justin as the sinister Vanderhausen. Leisurely paced, yet filled with details, this would have easily fit in the well respected Ghost Stories for Christmas based on the tales of M. R. James, if perhaps more akin to Jonathan Miller's Whistle and I'll Come to You, which like this was an Omnibus production.

If because of its source (the arts program Omnibus) there could be suspicions that the full horror of this story might have been diluted or made obscure, the final scenes dispel this completely and I think this was probably the most shocking ghost story I had ever seen on television when I first saw this in 1979. It has lost none of its impact now. Nor have the high production values in making it been exceeded either. This is a meticulously researched film with an impressive air of authenticity. Everything not only looks right, every beautifully designed scene could have come straight from a Dutch painting of the era in which it is based, from the sets, costumes and lighting.

No fan of Le Fanu will be disappointed by this rare adaptation of one of his stories.

The two short films accompanying it are not of the same class, but are interesting in their own right. My favourite of the two has to be The Pledge, a tale of three eighteenth century thieves who argumentatively decide to take down the rotting body of their friend, a highwayman captured, tried and executed and left hanging by the authorities in a gibbet on a lonely, windswept hill. The images of the body as it is glimpsed during the months it spends there, losing its feet to decay, are nightmarish and ugly. But there is a grotesque comic relief to all this when the three friends set out at the dead of night with a ladder to bury him in consecrated ground, even if it means dumping someone else's body elsewhere...

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