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Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Theatre of Death, Cinema of Blood - the Grand Guignol's cinematic legacy

The Grand Guignol in all but name - Theatre of Death (1967)

In the summer of 1962 cinema-goers could catch Herbert Lom gurning from the wings as he pitched his cunning against Michael Gough's pompous fraud Lord D'Arcy in Hammer's retread of The Phantom of the Opera, where he literally brings the house down with the aid of an embittered dwarf. By the end of the year it would be Hammer themselves drawing the curtain on another theatre, as in November the great Théâtre du Grand-Guignol of Paris closed its doors for the final time. That's the conventional narrative anyway, that the full-blooded horrors and the bodice-stretching bosoms on display in the likes of The Curse of Frankenstein and The Brides of Dracula offered something far more appealing and titillating than anything you could catch down the rue Chaptal. As Grande Dame of Grand Guignol scholarship Agnès Pierron notes, the downfall of the theatre 'coincides with the ascendancy of the Hammer film'. Graphic bloodshed and gore had found its way into cinema, and the French theatre had become a quaint curiosity.

I'm not going to debate the validity of this argument today, though a future post certainly will, but instead consider a few of the ways in which the influence of the Grand Guignol made itself known on screen. How the tropes, tricks and in some cases the theatre itself became significant components of the post-Psycho horror film. It won't be exhaustive: this is a big subject and we'll return to aspects of it in more detail in the future. There were a couple of films set in and around versions of the Grand Guignol made in the 1930's while the theatre was still packing in audiences, there is a surviving scrap of footage taken in the theatre itself and there are a number of filmed experiments which I haven't seen and don't have a link for. They're all for another time. For now, let's just start at the end.


The seats of the little theatre were barely cold before the first truly 'Grand Guignol-esque' film found its way to the screen. Herschell Gordon Lewis trained in advertising, directing a number of small commercials before realising the potential profits to be made from soft-core nudie pictures and teaming up with exploitation wizard David Friedman for a run of low-budget, low-rent features with names like Goldilocks and the Three Bares. Soon, the success of Hammer films began to revitalise interest in the horror movie genre, the British chillers demonstrating that a few drops of blood and the promise of female flesh in Technicolor was enough to lure back audiences who had long since wearied of the great American monster movie. Lewis was quick to catch on, betting that sex and violence were major components of Hammer's appeal, and that logically an American movie which promised (and delivered) more of the same could make a fortune. He was right, and in the summer of 1963 Blood Feast (NSFW) made $4,000,000 on a budget of little over $20,000.

More grisly than ever in BLOOD COLOR!
Blood Feast, with its tale of an insane Egyptian chef butchering scantily clad women to complete a bizarre ritual to the ancient goddess Ishtar, owes more to any of a number of creaky 1940's Boris Karloff vehicles than to the works of André de Lorde, but its set pieces are pure Guignol. A young woman is brutally whipped in a scene awash with sadomasochistic overtones, another has her tongue ripped from her throat while a coupling couple are dispatched with brain-splattering efficiency.

How unpleasant...
It wasn't only that the content had never really been seen before, it was also that the form was so shameless in its gratification of blood-lust, a craving cinema audiences had only just discovered they possessed. It has been hailed as the first 'splatter' film, but if it was, it certainly drew from a long heritage of 'splatter' theatre. An evening in the Grand Guignol would rarely have been as brutal as the brief 67 minutes of Lewis's film, but the structuring of set-pieces of escalating cruelty and the alternation of this violence with the gratification of more fleshly urges, were all traits Blood Feast and its successors shared with their theatrical forebears. It's not about what the violence is but rather what it means, what its purpose is in relation to the film's audience. Lewis followed Blood Feast up with further hits such as The Gore-Gore GirlsColour Me Blood Red and Two Thousand Maniacs!. The cross-over between violence and artists and the theatre were never far from his work, from the shameless lift from Mystery of the Wax Museum and Bucket of Blood in Colour Me Blood Red to perhaps the most Guignol of all his films, 1970's Juno-approved Wizard of Gore. Lewis never made it to the Grand Guignol (as far as I know) but its influence and attractive profitability was never far from his horror output. The sheer profit potential which Lewis had unlocked did not go unnoticed, and the age of the gorefest was beginning: in both Britain and America, the letter 'X' emblazoned on cinema posters ceased to refer solely to sex and nudity, and became as much a symbol of horror, fear and violence.


The splatter scene has undulated like a tide of red-red krovvy ever since. It washes in and out of mainstream popularity, seeming to peak in the early 1980's and then decline ten years later, before bursting back with resurrected ghoulishness in the mid-2000's. These films all, in myriad indirect ways, owe the relish they take in cruelty and bloodshed to the Grand Guignol (which owes its own to similarly diffuse inspirations, from Thomas Middleton to the popular press). Though these cheap and shlocky horror films are numberless (or seem that way when you've sat through more than 100 of them) there are a select few which have embraced the legacy of the Grand Guignol more directly, and one in particular which chose it for its setting.

A turkey by any other name...
Theatre of Death was released in 1967, named Blood Fiend in America in a last-ditch attempt to woo movie-goers still swooning over Lewis's earlier chunk-blower (as the late great Chas Balun would have termed it). It was a total scam, as it happens, as there's barely a drop of blood spilt in the later film, and truthfully very little to recommend it. There's Christopher Lee, who's as magnificent as ever, and a scene in which he demolishes a desperate young actress contains some of the finest put downs in cinema history ('I think I’d better tell you just why you’re so unattractive, both as a woman and an actress.' - read the whole exchange here, it's worth it) but ultimately it's just an overlong mystery melodrama with a striking setting. The film takes place in a barely disguised alternate version of the Grand Guignol, complete with a number of famous props and set pieces. It opens with the falling blade of a guillotine, no doubt left over from a production of Eugene Heros and Leon Abric's La Veuve and closes with the kind of ignorant pseudo-tribal exoticism which served as an excuse for topless dancing and outlandish torture throughout the life of the original theatre. There's something cheering in the fact that cinema paid a brief tribute to the Grand Guignol on its passing. Theatre of Death is a scraggy, wilting sort of wreath, but it's about the only one anyone bothered to lay.

Bereft of any direct reference, but richer in every way is 1973's Theatre of Blood, starring the indomitable Vincent Price as murderous king of ham Edward Lionheart. The follow-up in all but name to earlier Price vehicles The Abominable Dr Phibes and Dr Phibes Rises Again, it shares their structure of increasingly outlandish set-pieces tied together through Price's unstoppable rampage of revenge for an earlier slight.

Where Phibes sought to avenge the death of his wife on the operating table, Lionheart instead craves revenge on his critics for decades of bad reviews. I won't dwell on it here because if you haven't seen it I don't want to spoil a second, and in any case you should really be tracking down a copy from somewhere rather than reading this. Suffice to say it's filled with gloriously over the top murders which play delicious games with their own theatricality. Wherever it is mentioned, in whatever article, review or blog, the words 'Grand Guignol' are rarely far away. It seems to encompass everything which those two words evoke in the mind of the general reader: an age of roaring theatre fallen into sordidity, bright red blood and thick white greasepaint, farcical violence and booming hams. When Jim Broadbent took the role in a stage production at the National Theatre in 2005, his performance was described as 'pure Grand Guignol' by the Evening Standard, but in the minds of so many movie-goers, Price will always be the archetypal Guignoleur.

The next time the Grand Guignol appeared on screen in a recognisable form, it was in yet another riff on the ol' murderous waxworks story which was almost certainly ancient when Charles Belden optioned his play to Warner Bros. and which Tom and I stole for our own play 'The Art of Death' in 2010's Grand Guignol. This time it was dressed as the Théâtre des Vampires in the 1994 adaptation of Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire. Though on first appearance it resembles a hyper-violent version of the Grand Guignol, the lead actors are in fact vampires and their onstage victims mortal humans, whose mortality is mocked as the vampires feed at the climax of each act.

Inside the Théâtre des Vampires - Interview with the Vampire (1994)
Rice herself denies having possessed any knowledge of the Grand Guignol when she first wrote about it in 1973, and whether you believe her or not (I don't), its implications for an understanding of audience reception of Grand Guignol theatre is far more interesting than the plot purposes to which Rice eventually puts it in The Vampire Lestat. In Interview with the Vampire, the theatre presents an entertainment of almost pure subjugation and destruction. The audience of vampires feeds upon the images of their fellow vampires feeding on the mortals. There is an orgiastic quality to it, of an experience shared through voyeurism which drives the crowd, or as Brigid Cherry notes in a super online article, the female audience members, into a feeding frenzy. 30 years after the original Grand Guignol closed and a similar interval since it had seemed an appropriately ghastly location for Theatre of Death, it has here become something far more subversive and alluring. Where 'Grand Guignol' is generally used metonymically to describe extremity of horror, or that peculiar mixture of camp and bloodshed which Vincent Price and Todd Slaughter embody, here it is considered as symbolic of a very particular relationship between spectator and performer, of the game of audience complicity which the Grand Guignol engenders, driven outward to its logical terminus.

Cinematic interest in Grand Guignol resurfaced again with the release of Tim Burton's workmanlike adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The term, at least, was everywhere, employed as shorthand for theatrical horror in dozens of reviews, but there was little visible connection between the film and the theatre or its legacy. Sondheim's own musical is in many ways an expansion of a Victorian penny dreadful serial, a form which was a definite precursor to the Grand Guignol thriller, and the DVD of Burton's version contains a documentary featuring Richard Hand, Mel Gordon and numerous other movers and shakers in the Grand Guignol world. The film itself, sadly, was Burton-by-numbers.


The Theatre Bizarre had its UK premier at London's Frightfest 2011 a little over a month ago. A collaboration between some of extreme cinema's most infamous nutbars (Richard Stanley of Hardware and  Buddy Giovinazzo of Combat Shock  just for starters) and familiar faces of 80's horror (Tom Savini and Udo Kier!!) that strings together six short stories inspired by the Grand Guignol into a portmanteau framed by a young woman's visit to a strangely familiar abandoned theatre. I haven't seen it yet, but it looks a lot of fun (NSFW), if not particularly faithful to the tone or content of its inspiration (and this is 2011, so why should it be?).

In a way this is exciting and new, as there's never been a film structured like this that pays such explicit lip service to the Grand Guignol, but in a way it's part of a considerable heritage of anthology films that bring together a diverse range of short horror stories in the same manner as an evening in the original theatre in Paris. There's so much about the anthology film, one of my absolute favourite genres, that owes a debt to the Grand Guignol. So once I've sat down with the rest of Theatre of the Damned and given The Theatre Bizarre a watch, I'll follow this ramble up with another one. Any excuse to give Dead of Night another viewing.

- Stewart Pringle

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