Suddenly, a whole raft of classic British supernatural television dramas is lined up for release by the BFI. Items which were only available as grainy bootlegs are due for issue as quality, restored items. These releases cannot come too soon for those of us who saw the original broadcasts, for we don't know how long we have left to enjoy such happy reunions. Prominent among these forthcoming films is Leslie Megahey's 'Schalcken The Painter' based on the story by Joseph Sheridan LeFanu. LeFanu was one of the first writers on supernatural themes to depart from the vapourous ghosts of tradition and introduce those more corporeal demons and vampires who strutted their stuff at the end of the nineteenth century, and who are with us still. The use of a scholarly narrator was also a device adopted by LeFanu, one which was emulated by his great disciple Montague Rhodes James. This conceit served to make the ghost stories of both these writers more believable.
'Schalcken' was a film in the BBC's 'Omnibus' strand being thereby designed to be both entertaining and instructive, as indeed was LeFanu's story. The film is in colour. I cannot comment upon the quality of the restoration as I haven't seen the new product. This revue concerns only aesthetic aspects of the film.
The story is told as a sequence of dramatic tableaux with an ever present, understated commentary by an art historian (Charles Gray). The casting is inspired and the acting superb: Jeremy Clyde (Schalcken), Maurice Denham (Gerrit Dou), Cheryl Kennedy (Rose) and John Justin (Vanderhausen). It's probably unfair to cite a particular piece of acting for special praise but I cannot resist mention of the scene in which Rose first sets eyes on her macabre suitor. It is breathtaking, even electrifying. Cheryl Kennedy has surely never produced a better performance than this.
The sets are gorgeous. The use of soft, low lighting helps to transport the viewer into a series of seventeenth century Dutch interiors. The experience is akin to watching paintings by Vermeer come to life, all filmed with an unwavering sureness of touch. Detailed reviews of this celebrated film are readily to be found online. However, I would leave these till later if you don't want to read the story before watching the film.
I cannot imagine a more sympathetic rendition of LeFanu's chilling but moral tale. Unlike M. R. James he was not deterred from bringing sex into his stories. The viewer must be prepared for scenes of a sexual nature and ones which contain female nudity. Throughout the direction is masterly. Don't miss this atmospheric masterpiece.