30 Jan

Grand Guignol: The roots of horror cinema

Posted by Bryan White | Monday January 30, 2012 | Whimsy

Grand Guignol posterHorror has been with the human race pretty  much since our origin as a species. Fear lives deep in the reptilian brain and we’ve always used storytelling to help us deal with the shit that freaks us out. As our means of telling stories progressed, horror travelled with us and it was a natural progression from the spoken word, to the written word to the projected image. Almost as soon as film was used to tell stories, horror made its grand entrance to that medium with Georges Melies’ 1896 film The Haunted Castle but between the advent of film and the printed word, horror was taken to the stage in varying degrees of grue. The stage was no stranger to violent imagery. Shakespeare’s greatest works are propelled by gory violence but at a theater in the Pigalle district of Paris, The Grand Guignol made gory violence its specialty.

Le Theatre du Grand Guignol, translated, means The Big Puppet Show and was intended by its owner and creator, Oscar Metenier, to be a space for the emerging naturalist theater performances, which downplayed the stylized deliveries of dialog by the casts, taking place in realistic settings in a world that audiences recognized. Metenier had ideas that were bold and scared the crap out of theater managers due to their explicit nature. In order to realize his vision, he was going to have to own his own space and in 1897, that’s just what he did. Guignol refers to a sort of social satire done in a Punch & Judy method but the plays which took place at The Grand Guignol were anything but.

Grand GuignolIn its first year of operation, Metenier pioneered a seedy sort of stage act which put the spotlight of the underbelly of French society, casting for characters such a petty criminals and prostitutes and telling their story in their own language which made for a much more visceral and realistic experience. It was an immediate hit as theater goers were offered the opportunity to slum from the safe distance of their theater seats. The plays often ended with bloody climax, but it wasn’t until 1898 when Metenier stepped out of the director’s chair and director Max Maurey stepped in in his place. Beginning with Maurey’s stint as director, The Grand Guignol took on a much more morbid menu of entertainment as the focus shifted away from the seedy element of society and became something akin to horror movies as we know them today. Maurey, laying the groundwork for exploitation filmmakers to come, measured the success of his plays by how many people fainted during the performances, issued warnings about the content of the plays and kept a house doctor on the premises to look after patrons who succumbed to the horrors of the play. Maurey could be considered the godfather of exploitation film, moving away from Metenier’s sleazy but well-meaning explorations of a new paradigm in stage play and into a world of pure trashy spectacle.

The supernatural, like horror, itself, has been with the human race since the advent of thought but at the Grand Guignol the supernatural was forbidden subject matter, opting instead to spotlight horrors that lived firmly in the realm of possibility. The theater was pretty small, even by small theater standards, seating a mere 285 patrons with a 20 by 20 stage and plays ran pretty short, allowing for three or more shows in a single engagement. Not all were pure horror, as Maurey would  mix it up by adding some black comedy into the mix before diving back into a scene involving live dissections of women under hypnosis by doctors driven mad. The plots, even by today’s standards were fucking insane. I’m talking flying free in the same atmosphere that spawned movie maniacs like H.G. Lewis and John Waters. Characters in any given Guignol play were often awful examples of humanity, rarely were any innocent victims, though the violation of those factored into the scripts occasionally. Often, the mentally ill were involved and believe you me, the guilty never received punishments for their crimes. The real reason anyone went to these plays, though, was to see the special effects happen on stage as animal eyeballs and guts frequently flew from victims bodies’ and landed in the laps of the front row patrons. Something to consider: Though the Grand Guignol was located in what is Paris’ red light district, these nasty plays were often attended by society types out for a thrill. The earliest consnumers of horror entertainment were, in fact, people considered to be the finest element of French society.

According to The Straight Dope, a couple of examples of Grand Guignol plays were:

  • The innocent Louise is unjustly locked in an asylum with several insane women. A nurse assigned to protect her blithely leaves for a staff party as soon as Louise falls asleep. The insane women decide that a cuckoo bird is imprisoned in Louise’s head and and one gouges out her eye with a knitting needle. The other crazy women are freaked and burn the gouger’s face off on a hot plate.
  • Two brothers have an orgy with two prostitutes at a lighthouse. The lighthouse beacon goes out and one of the brothers realizes a boat containing their mother is heading toward the rocks. But the drunken lighthouse keeper has locked the beacon door. The brother goes nuts, blames everything on an earlier blasphemy by one of the hookers, slits her throat, and throws her out the window. “The boat with the men’s mother crashes against the rocks,” Gordon says. “In a religious frenzy, the [brothers] decide to burn [the other prostitute] to death. After pouring gasoline on her, they incinerate her and pray.” The end.

Grand Guignol PosterThe Grand Guignol persisted even as Europe was ravaged by war. Twice. Ticket sales suffered in the face of world wars which brought actual horror to France during and after both World War One and World War Two. Bloody trench warfare and battlefield medicine that delivered surviving veterans of the first world war back to France missing limbs and nursing crushing mental illness soured a lot of people to what the Grande Guignol had to offer. To make matters worse, World War Two not only brought Nazi occupation to France but it also revealed to the world precisely how evil the human race can be and campy stage blood has a lot of competition when actual human beings were committing systemized mass murder all over Europe and subjecting living prisoners to horrific medical experimentation. The Grand Guignol, once a beacon of the Paris tourist trade began a slow decline into obscurity and the emergence of exploitation horror movies, priced much cheaper in Paris movie theaters proved to be the final nail in the theater’s coffin. In 1962, Les Theatre du Grand Guignol closed its doors forever. Oddly in all this time not a single roll of film captured a Grand Guignol performance. Photographs exist but the only known film of the Grand Guignol exists in a Mondo film called Ecco and based on the reputation of those movies, its authenticity is highly questionable.

Other theaters around Europe attempted to capitalize on the spectacle of The Grand Guignol to varying degrees of success but the only theater that ever survived for as long as it did was the one and only original. Though fairly obscure today, the effect of the Grand Guignol’s style is highly evident in modern horror film. Its stylized introduction of explicit violence was often brought to the screen by masters of the Giallo and the American slasher movie, often capitalizing on the same sorts of themes: Vice and sin are often punished by something even worse.

Horror hounds, take a moment to recognize the importance of  The Grand Guignol on the genre and then keep an eye out for local theater troupes producing plays originally produced at The Grand Guignol. The building, by the way, still exists in its original location in France. Tourists can still check it out. It’s currently occupied by a troupe that produces plays for the hearing impaired.


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