Theatre of Fear and Horror: The Grisly Spectacle of the Grand Guignol of Paris 1897-1962 by Mel Gordon

From its beginning, and before there was such a thing as horror films, the live performances of the Grand Guignol inspired everything we know about that genre.  Over 50 years after its final performance, it continues to inspire for much the same reasons.  The theater was built inside the remnants of a gutted convent and chapel, with sculpted cherubs and the defiled history of the place casting long shadows across the stage.  The seating area was so small that it was said a person could reach forward to touch the stage while touching the back wall with their toes.  This meant that, invariably, the audience would participate in the show whether they wanted to or not.  To make the night complete, rumors abounded that no show was complete without at least a couple of audience members requiring medical attention due to shock.  Specializing in a combination of realistic special effects and sleight of hand, the performers of the Grand Guignol regularly sated a thirst for blood in an audience that came more and more to expect taboo and gore on impossible levels.  Nothing was off the table.  More often than not, the performers delivered.  Much of what we think of as German Expressionism in early silent film (such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) was neither German nor Expressionist, having its influence in the Grand Guignol de Paris.  Early films from Tod Browning such as Freaks owes its inspiration, as do the jump-scare films of the 1950s, pretty much all of the Hammer horror films of the late 50s through the 70s, and the slasher films of the 80s and 90s.

Think of this book as a history anthology.  The first part is a history of the theater itself from its inception to its demolition, complete with photos, color posters, and reproduced playbills.  From there, a breakdown of the stage tricks, which include everything from disembowelment to extraction of eyes.  If that weren’t enough, this book also contains a summary of one hundred plots, Andre de Lord’s essay “Fear in Literature,” and two scripts produced for the Grand Guignol.  Not enough?  How about an autobiographical account from the company’s leading female performer, Maxa, who was assaulted, raped, disfigured, and killed on that stage over 10,000 times?  And then the cherry on top: the controversial script “Orgy in the Lighthouse.”

This book was originally published in the late 80s, and this edition is expanded to include more photos and posters and such.  As jam-packed as it is, it’s something you could read in an afternoon or, say, on a long car ride across state lines.  For those of the feint of heart or the remotely prudish, it’s probably for the best you not know what’s inside.  For the diehard horror fans, this is mandatory reading.

4 stars

One thought on “Theatre of Fear and Horror: The Grisly Spectacle of the Grand Guignol of Paris 1897-1962 by Mel Gordon

  1. Pingback: Theatre of Fear and Horror: The Grisly Spectacle of the Grand Guignol of Paris 1897-1962 by Mel Gordon — Knight of Angels – horrorcontinued

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