Review: Schalcken the Painter / Cert: 15 / Director: Leslie Megahey / Screenplay: Leslie Megahey / Starring: Jeremy Clyde, Maurice Denham, Cheryl Kennedy, John Justin / Release Date: November 18th
As you may or may not have noticed, the BFI have been releasing much of the BBC’s spooky '70s output on DVD over the last couple of years. The Beeb’s A Ghost Story for Christmas had originated from an Omnibus special in 1968 with a dramatisation of M. R. James’ Whistle and I’ll Come to You. When the series’ initial run concluded in 1978 it was replaced the following year with a return to the Omnibus format and the fondly-remembered Schalcken the Painter. This is one that aficionados have been wanting to get their hands on for years, so is it as good as they remember?
It’s based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1839 Gothic horror Strange Event in the Life of Schalcken the Painter. Godfried Schalcken was a 17th century Dutch artist and, inspired by his dark and atmospheric paintings, Le Fanu imagined a story in which Schalcken’s unrequited love was married off to a quite-probably-undead suitor with not-in-the-slightest-bit hilarious consequences. There’s much to like about the BBC’s interpretation: it’s suitably dark and it leaves a great deal to the imagination; the viewer needs to question and think. It also makes clever use of Schalcken’s art as inspiration for many of the shot compositions and employs many of his paintings (including one they made up) as storytelling devices. However, we’re going to take a punt that many of those waiting for this DVD might be a teensy bit disappointed; the production is not without problems that may have been forgotten over the years.
Schalcken clearly needs to be a slow-burner to build to that effective climax; this is not a story that could be rushed. But while those Christmas ghost stories the BBC were so fond of varied in length, they always came in well short of an hour. What seems to have happened here is that director/writer Leslie Megahey got carried away with the whole Omnibus BBC art-flagship vibe and delivered a ponderous, pretentious and painfully slow 75 minutes that just doesn’t have enough content to fill the running time. Tightly directed, it is not. There are long scenes in which little happens and longer ones that are simply superfluous. All of which is a shame but doesn’t necessarily cause Schalcken to be a dud; it’s just not quite the magnificent piece of television many remember it as.
The disc also features a wordless Poe-inspired short, The Pit, made for the princely sum of £876(!) in 1962. It’s suitably nightmarish and not one to watch before bedtime, but perhaps the gem on the DVD is Digby Rumsey’s even shorter The Pledge, an effective telling of Lord Dunsany’s The Highwayman in which a corpse rots on the gallows while the deceased’s former friends conspire to save his soul. Gruesome, creepy and surprisingly satisfying.
Extras: The Pit / The Pledge / Look Into the Dark – The Making of Schalcken the Painter / Sketches for the Pit