When is a movie not a movie? The answer is not simply when it is made for television or cable and unlikely to get a cinema release. This question also covers rarities like the above 68 minute film which was made for a television arts series, but which is something more than an appraisal of a long dead artist. Ken Russell's fanciful takes on a number of composers come to mind, but this amazing film embroiders the little-known facts of Godfried Schalcken's life (yes, he really was a painter and his works can still be found in various European museums), with an overlay of imaginative horror and political comment.
Based on a 100-year old short story by the Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu, who also gifted future film-makers with the first lesbian vampire Camilla and who incorporated his own weird dreams into his fiction, this was a pet project of British television producer Leslie Megahey. He tried to interest the BBC in taking his script as part of their ghost-story for Christmas strand, but they wanted to use a different director and he felt that only he could truly realise his vision. When he was subsequently put in charge of their Omnibus series, he commissioned himself to direct the movie and it aired late evening on 23 December, 1979. Despite a couple of subsequent showings over the next decade, it was considered 'lost' for years, until a relatively recent dual-format release by the BFI, packaged this gem with a host of other goodies. It was never considered suitable for VHS release because of some occasional nudity including an ever-so-brief full frontal shot, sure to affront our moral guardians.
Charles Grey sets the scene as Le Fanu the narrator, explaining how he learned of the strange events in the life of the painter and believing that so-called ghost stories have their roots in the depths of the human mind. With his fruity voice and purring tones, Grey leads us into the world of l7th century Leiden where the strange tale unfolds. (Vincent Price and Peter Cushing were the director's first choices, but Grey is just about perfect). When the story opens, the artist (Jeremy Clyde) is a penniless student under the tutelage of Gerrit Dou (also a real painter, played by British character stalwart Maurice Denham) and in love with Dou's comely niece and ward Rose (Cheryl Kennedy). Despite his mentor's conviction that his talented pupil has a bright future, they are both aware that his short-term prospects are negligible. Therefore when the grotesque suitor 'Vanderhausen from Rotterdam' comes to claim Rose's hand in marriage, Dou is willing to sell her future happiness for the ghastly visitor's casket of gold and jewels. Covered in the layers of make-up that have transformed him into one of the walking dead, it is hard to remember that the actor, John Justin, was once a romantic lead back in 1940's gorgeous "Thief of Bagdad". Despite imploring Clyde to run away with her, he replies that he can only work hard in the hope of some day being able to buy back the marriage contract -- and off she goes into a unknown future.
Dou and his student prosper but lose all contact with the couple for many years, apart from one fleeting visit where the crazed young woman seeks sanctuary with them and apparently flings herself to a watery death. Investigating further Schalcken visits the church where the pair were last seen together and witnesses something so horrifying in the crypt that it colours his remaining years. The viewer is left to draw one's own conclusion as to whether Vanderhausen is a vampire, a ghoul, or just a greedy old man who covets Rose's youth, and to ponder what she in turn has become.
The film faithfully recreates the period and the interiors look as if they might have been designed by Jan Vermeer himself. But the underlying theme is that every man has his price, and that greed, earthly concerns, and commerce have replaced faith in the church both in the art of the period and in the hearts of men. Many of Schalcken's strange paintings, small candlelit subjects -- boding something sinister in the shadows -- are featured in the film, but the one that is the focus of Le Fanu's eerie tale was created for Megahey's chilling biopic of the long-forgotten artist.
The disc is packaged with an interesting interview with Megahey and two short films "The Pit"(1962) and "The Pledge" (1981), which reinforce the idea that many horrors lurk in the shadowy corners of our imagination.