Housed within a former chapel, Paris' Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol was founded in the late 19th century where it became a profane pulpit for gory and graphic horror shows that shocked audiences, leaving them drooling for more (when they weren't fainting from fright, that is). Actors simulated stabbings, hangings, beatings, rape, and other brutalities in the name of entertainment – a new kind of grotesque diversion. Its repute grew to the extent that the theatre's noun became an adjective – eviscerating its way into language itself, a byword for the bloody and bizarre. What began as a metaphorical middle finger to the censors by producing plays about – and starring – the dregs of Paris' social stratosphere, evolved into a test of wills and an arena in which to explore the boundaries of good taste.
The theater would go to unusual lengths to achieve a startling realism in their special effects. Sheep's eyes were sometimes used as human stand-ins for eye-gouging gore, particularly because they bounced nicely when they hit the floor. Lambskins often became the flesh that was torn from a screaming victim's face. The Grand Guignol developed some of the earliest practical horror effects by using inflatable bladders and pumps that were hidden on actor's bodies, which gushed blood when prop knives sliced and diced. As if the frightening and vivid depictions of violent mayhem weren't enough, theatergoers were also subjected to plays that became essays on the unknown. At the outset of the 20th century, fatal diseases were still a tangible menace, and performances that featured the threat of an infectious malady were often more terrifying than the slaughter on stage. Spectacles induced by drugs or hypnosis were also a hit with audiences.
Eventually the theater closed its doors in 1962, but its legacy lives on. From splatter cinema – and extreme entries like the Saw series (Grand Guignol by way of ferocious traps and gratuitous gore) – to the upcoming anthology, The Theatre Bizarre (featuring the work of genre badasses like Tom Savini and Richard Stanley), the Grand Guignol has exerted an undeniable influence on horror cinema to this very day. Here are five gruesomely gorgeous films that conjure the spirit of the grand horror show, and evoke something of its bloody majesty.
Interview With the Vampire
After we overcame the initial shock of seeing Tom Cruise playing a bloodsucking fiend in Neil Jordan's 1994 film Interview With the Vampire – based on the Anne Rice's 1976 goth novel favorite – audiences reveled in the glory that is Antonio Banderas' metal hair in the Théâtre des Vampires scene of Neil Jordan's movie. After Louis (Brad Pitt) and Claudia (Kirsten Dunst) jet to Paris together, they hook up with a coven of vamps lead by patriarch, Armand (Banderas). His specialty? Putting on wild and gory theatrical performances where he murders a terrified female victim before an unsuspecting audience. Although Rice says she didn't base her undead troupe and their drama house on the Grand Guginol, the associations seem obvious. Suffused in melodramatic decadence, the theatre's flamboyant wickedness suits the film's style to a tee.
Where there's sensationalism, mondo films will follow – and Gianni Proia's 1964 shock doc, Ecco (which essentially means "behold" in Italian) takes viewers on a tour inside the Grand Guignol theater in this candid expose. The movie purports to share footage from its final performance – which took place before the Parisian horror plays ended in 1962 – but given mondo's penchant for staged scenarios this could be a complete fabrication. Regardless, there's a great narration delivered by the smugly sophisticated George Sanders and a score by Italo-favorite Riz Ortolani – who also supplied the melodies for mondo's first entry, Mondo Cane.
Eyes Without a Face
Eyes Without a Face, the poetically horrific film from Georges Franju, caused a stir with audiences for its Grand Guignol-esque surgery scene. Tracking the deranged folly of a surgeon who kidnaps and kills young women for their countenances – so he can graft them onto the disfigured visage of his daughter – some of the film's explicit effects channel its stage-bound ancestor. There's a tense build up to the moment when Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) coolly and slowly peels the skin off his victim's skull, and shock when we realize Franju has actually gone so far as to show us the flayed, bloodied monstrosity hiding underneath. It was 1960 after all, and the movie reportedly caused moviegoers to faint, while critics universally panned it. The American release cut the offending frames, adding a zoom and fade to black before the revelatory moment. Thankfully, it's the director's cut – surgery episode intact – that has come to be recognized as one of the most fantastical pieces of horror cinema ever created.
One could contend that all Italian horror cinema shares traits with the macabre Parisian theater shows. The grueling and garish savagery of their instinctive take on the genre often emphasizes style over substance – with lurid color palettes contributing a highly theatrical and uncanny finish. One prime example is Mario Bava's Black Sunday, in which the director's masterful evocation of expressionistic atmosphere, sexual twinges, and stark violence feels like a reenactment of something hemorrhaging across the French stage. That Bava imbues his film with such palpable depravity – and in black and white – is a true testament to his skill.
The Horror of Dracula
During the 1950s, Hammer Films released a slew of successful sci-fi/monster movies, which encouraged the studio to delve into more horror-based themes. As interest in Paris' Grand Guignol theater was dwindling during the late '50s and early '60s (it was hard to compete with the kind of terror audiences had lived first-hand during the War), Hammer looked to the brutal and blood-soaked Franco fright productions to give one of cinema's most famous monsters a makeover. The Horror of Dracula strikingly presented sanguine special effects and accentuated the vampire's sexuality. Close-ups of Lee baring his fangs, and vivid, red blood flowing freely – all lensed in shocking Technicolor – offered a sight to behold. Hammer's inaugural vampire film rang in a new era of fear.