SPOOKSTERS OF MAGIC PAST AND PRESENT
Grand Guignol 1973
by Walter Hudson
This is a reprint of the 1973 Tops article by Walt Hudson
I recently had the opportunity to view the world's most famous horror-illusion show. I thought I'd seen, over the years, just about every horror-spook show format but this show, the Grand Guignol of Paris, has got to be the best or worst depending upon your criteria for evaluation.
The thing is certain there is not one horror show in this country as professionally staged as Grand Guignol. the show at the Theatre De L'European in Paris opened last March. It is a revival of a theatrical attraction that ran for about sixty years and closed fifteen years ago. The new producer, Christian Fechner, and writer-director Gerard Croce, are both young men in their twenties and if the audience response, both from the native Parisians and the tourists is any indication, these men have a money making success on their hands. The local critics have blasted the show. However, it is interesting to note that the general public abroad pays little attention to the so called critics. If they like a show they go regarless of the critics comments.
Grand Guignol is housed in a small theater which seats about 400 people and the evening we were there the place was packed. The best seats sold for $9.00 per ticket which is just a bit below the cost of a ducat to a Broadway show. Outside the theater the people are enticed to enter via the use of a large movie screen which continually shows scenes from the show. The people who have front row seats are given large white aprons to wear so that their clothes will not be stained by the blood as it splashes from the stage...what a beautiful bit of showmanship!
The show is presented in two parts. The first consists of two one act plays and the second includes one play and then a musical revue that is typically French including semi-nudes who sing and dance. Jean Pierre Vauger acts as M.C. and introduces the acts with aplomb. The show is extravagantly staged in a visually striking manner; there is nothing cheap about the presentation. All of the horror plays presented dramtically but with tongue in cheek and the audience sees the humor in the horror after the first five minutes of initial shock. all of the special effects, based upon principles used in creating magic illusions, are staged by Joames Hodges, a professional magician.
For those readers with weak stomachs, I suggest you stop reading now and join us next month! (editors note, this applies to 2011 readers as much as it did in 1973, this is some gory stuff) For those who want a more fuller description of the gore, read on.
The theater darkens and recorded music plays the brief overture. It is the wildest, weirdest music I've ever heard. It is played so blastingly loud it actually causes your body to vibrate. It sets the mood for the first act. The curtain opens on a beautifully designed set of a 17th century French bedroom. The play is "Horrible End of Dr. Guillotin." There is a clash of thunder and a flash of lightning and the wind blows open the windows and the curtains flutter in the breeze. In the center of the stage is a large canopy type bed and Dr. Guillotin is sleeping. He is awakened by a reoccurring nightmare.
Eight ghosts come forth and each relates a horrible tale and shows a scarred and maimed body. The make-up is sensational. They grab the doctor and proceed to cut off his left hand using a gleaming scalpel; the blood flows freely, probably from the gimmicked scalpel handle. After more torture the ghosts vanish and the doctor returns to bed and as he does his hand appears back on his arm again and he awakens realizing the whole incident was a horrible dream. He lies back over the foot of the bed with his head up and laughs. As he does the bed is transformed into a chopping block and a large blade drops from its top and lops off his head which rolls with a thud to the edge of the stage as the decapitated body spurts blood all over the stage. The scene ends in a blackout and the nervous laughter of the audience turns to applause.
In the next play a mad butcher and his wife slice up and eviscerate beggars and other various visitors to their shop. A girl is impaled upon a meat hook, and another has both hands chopped off, and a man's eye is gorged out and he is forced to eat it. Pretty strong stuff.
The final play is the "Dance of the Madmen", continues the gore by having a scientist remove the brain of a girl in an agonizing lobotomy operation. Other assorted gruesome torture devices are demonstrated as the play proceeds. Quite a mixture of sick humor, and sadism all accomplished by clever staging, superior presentation and the use of magical gimmicks.
The cast manages to get itself cleaned up for the sparkling musical finale and the audience leaves the theater having been through a unique experience. the only disappointment as far as I am concerned, is the souvenir program. I was hoping it would include some scenes from the show, especially the ones using the torture type illusions which I could reproduce for our readers to see. However, the program is merely a collection of photos of the cast members and has no actual scenes from the show. Grand Guignol is a collection of magical illusions presented in a horror motif. The show packs them in advertised as a macabre revue of mayhem. wonder if it would do the same amount of business if it was presented as a straight magic-illusion show?
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