Saturday, December 18, 2010

Vamp or Not? Schalcken the Painter

This was a BBC presentation, directed by Leslie Megahey and first broadcast in 1979. The reason for looking at it under “Vamp or Not?” is that it was, in turn, based on the short tale by J Sheridan La Fanu “Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter” which had been inspired by the paintings of the real life Schalcken.

La Fanu is, of course, most famous (on this blog, at least) for his story Carmilla but “Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter” had a vampiric overtone as well as we shall see when we look at the story, later, as an “Interesting Short”.

the painting
This is narrated by La Fanu (Charles Grey) whose grandfather, the narration claims, knew Schalcken (Jeremy Clyde, Supernatural: Dorabella). He highlights a particular painting that shows a woman holding a candle (Schalcken specialised in such works) behind her stands the painter, drawing his sword and in the darkness an undefined presence. La Fanu claims that his grandfather told him the story of the painting, which he heard directly from Schalcken.

Cheryl Kennedy as Rose
Schalcken was the pupil of the Dutch master Dou (Maurice Denham, Countess Dracula) and whilst he learnt his art he fell in love with Dou’s niece, Rose (Cheryl Kennedy). She, in turn, returned that love and he hoped to build himself a reputation as a painter so that they could then marry.

Jeremy Clyde as Schalcken
Whilst working on a piece a man appeared in the shadows of the doorway. He introduced himself as Mynher Vanderhausen (John Justin, also in Supernatural: Dorabella) and left a message that he would see Dou the next night about a matter of some weight. The next night he reappears and asks whether Schalcken can be trusted, when Dou suggests he can he sends the apprentice painter with a small box to a goldsmith with instructions that the contents be valued.

Maurice Denham as Dou
Whilst Schalcken is away, Vanderhausen tells Dou that he wishes to marry his niece. Dou is reticent at first but when Schalcken returns and shows him the valuation of the box (which contained gold coins of antiquity) he signs the contract. Vanderhausen invites himself to dinner the next night to meet the subject of the contract. Dou does not tell Rose what he has done as he doesn’t want to admit that he hasn’t had good sight of her husband-to-be’s face.

Vanderhausen revealed
Vanderhausen’s face is revealed at dinner and he is an ugly man with a grey/blue cast. This is slightly different from the story in respect of one integral part – as we shall later see. Rose is disturbed by his countenance and more disturbed when she learns she is to marry him. He reminds Rose of a painted wooden figure at the St. Lawrence church in Rotterdam. Does this mean that Vanderhausen is less the dead and more that figure brought to life? The figure is mentioned both in the story and film but, given the location of the finale, I still believe him to be a living corpse. She actually suggests to Schalcken that they elope – who refuses as he cannot support them. He suggests that he will earn enough eventually to buy the contract back. Rose has to marry and is not heard from after the wedding.

Rose escaped
Dou sends Schalcken to look for her and this section is slightly more involved than the story and builds in more of Schalcken’s art and the idea that Schalcken would visit whores. Eventually the pupil became more famous than the teacher, as an artist, though they still resided together. A banging on the door occurs and a dishevelled Rose appears. She demands wine and food – as though she has been starved – and then asks for a priest to be called. Schalcken takes her to a room and the girl is crying out that “The dead and the living can never be one—God has forbidden it.”. There is a movement in the shadows and she cries that *he* is already there. She wants light and as Schalcken goes to get a lamp the door slams shut and we hear her scream. When they get the door open, she is gone again. This is mostly the same as the story but, again, there is one major difference.

Vanderhausen sits up
The film then diverges from the story, adding in more about the painter and his life. Then Dou dies, though in the story it is Schalcken’s father, and we discover why he painted the picture we were shown at the beginning. Alone in the church he is drawn to the vaults and sees Rose (in the story he falls asleep and she wakes him). She leads him by candlelight until they reach a bed. Drawing back the curtains he sees the corpse like Vanderhausen sit up. Le Fanu remains silent on this but the filmmakers have Rose lift her nightdress and straddle the corpse, riding the dead man vigorously as Schalcken looks on in shock and then passes out. When he awakens he is by a tomb.

So we have a dead man who is sexually active, clearly, animated and apparently erudite. However there is nothing overtly vampiric about the film, unfortunately. Being a close adaptation of “Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter” it is, however, of genre interest as we shall see below. The imdb page is here.

Interesting Short: “Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter”

This story by J Sheridan Le Fanu was published in 1839. The BBC adaptation of the short – as outlined above – is very true to the original story. It does pad things out a little but it also misses two essential ingredients.

When Vanderhausen appears at the house for dinner we get the following description of the creature:

“the flesh of the face was coloured with the bluish leaden hue which is sometimes produced by the operation of metallic medicines administered in excessive quantities; the eyes were enormous, and the white appeared both above and below the iris, which gave to them an expression of insanity, which was heightened by their glassy fixedness; the nose was well enough, but the mouth was writhed considerably to one side, where it opened in order to give egress to two long, discoloured fangs, which projected from the upper jaw, far below the lower lip; the hue of the lips themselves bore the usual relation to that of the face, and was consequently nearly black.”

The description goes on to suggest that he never blinks through the meal nor does his chest rise and fall as it would if he respired. This, from our point of view, is important as Le Fanu gives this living corpse a set of fangs. Indeed the description reminds me a little of Barlow as he would be portrayed in the 1979 ’Salem’s Lot.

The other main difference between the two is more subtle but, when Rose returns, she is wearing a dress that included “a kind of white woollen wrapper, made close about the neck” - as though she hid bite marks? Perhaps, but it is the fangs that makes this seem vampiric to the modern reader and whilst it isn’t the clearest of connections one would have to accept this interpretation.


Christine said...

I have read the original story but, unfortunately, not seen this series. Although Carmilla is my LeFanu favorite by far, this sounds actually nicely Gothic.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Christine, Le Fanu also wrote Spalatro, from the notes of Fra Giacomo - which is very much in the original Gothic mode (I mention just in case it is one you haven't read yet, though I suspect you have)

Spalatro also has a vampiric element.

Ian said...

Schalken The Painter was first broadcast on BBC2 on 23 December 1979, late in the evening. It was shown a second time around 1981/1982 and then seem to vanish. Bootleg copies of the programme are now turning up on DVD disk. The original programme is thought lost by the BBC.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

cheers Ian

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Adding to the previous comments, Schalcken the Painter is not lost - indeed it is now available on a dual format Blu-ray/DVD set