Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Schalcken the Painter (1979) (TV)

...aka: Sheridan Le Fanu's 'Schalcken the Painter'

Directed by:
Leslie Megahey

Godfried Schalcken was a 17th Century Dutch painter who studied under Gerard (Gerrit) Dou, himself a former student of Rembrandt. Schalcken, like Dou, specialized in both portraits and dark, atmospheric visions lit solely by candlelight; many of which take on an eerie or sinister quality. Inspired by the work of Schalcken, Sheridan Le Fanu wrote a Gothic horror story entitled "Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter" in 1839, which was in turn made into a British TV movie that debuted on BBC around Christmastime in 1979 and has since fallen into obscurity. And that's really too bad, because this is a very good film that actually succeeds at being three separate things at once. For starters, it's a respectable, eerie and fairly faithful adaptation of Le Fanu's story. Secondly, it manages to accurately capture the flavor of the era in which it takes place. Finally, and most impressively, it manages to capture the dark beauty of Schalcken's artwork. Nearly every frame of this film seems to be a painting in and of itself, and done in reverence to the shadowy world Schalcken created in his paintings. Most of the shots are very carefully set and lit, with soft candlelight illuminating the action in the middle of the screen yet leaving the edges of the frame shrouded in shadow.

The story begins with Schalcken's (Jeremy Clyde) arrival at Dou's (Maurice Denham) Leiden studio as an impoverished young artist just as he's making the transition from sketches to oil paintings. Schalcken falls in love with Dou's niece Rose (Cheryl Kennedy), but Dou has already promised her hand in marriage to the wealthy, mysterious corpse-like Vanderhausen (John Justin) in exchange for some gold. Schalcken promises the terrified Rose that he'll one day become successful enough to buy her back, but has to let her go for the time being. He then becomes so immersed in his work and visits a local brothel, that by the time he does actually have fame and money, he finds he may be too late to save his former love from her ghastly suitor. The film doesn't even bother to define the Vanderhausen character in clichéd horror terms. You're never quite sure what he is (a vampire... a demon lover... a sadistic old man...?) or what he's done to Rose. That is up to us to decide, and the film is all the better for allowing us to use our imaginations to fill in the blanks.

I'm sure that many of today's film-goers will find this too slow-moving or "boring" for their tastes since there's no graphic violence and it relies on mood, lighting, ambiguity and art direction to create an uneasy and creepy atmosphere. However, fans of atmospheric, deliberately-paced ghost tales, as well as art connoisseurs, will find a lot to like here. Charles Gray narrates as "The Voice of Lefanu."


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