In the first part of our this introduction to extreme cinema, we looked deeper into where the term “extreme cinema” came from, what defines it and how you can classify a horror film as something to be considered extreme. In that article I introduced one of the places it seems that extreme films could have originated from and that is a theatre in Paris, France, known for its gory, bloody and often shocking plays depicting some of the most despicable acts known to man; that place is the Grand Guignol.
Pigalle is an area in France, that during those times was best known for its nightlife. Named after the sculptor Jean-Baptiste Pigalle and nicknamed Pig Alley by soldiers during WW2, the area is home to sex shops, scantily clad women, adult experiences and the theatre. In 1889 Pigalle became the hottest spot in town due to the world renowned Moulin Rouge, which opened its doors and legs to the public on 6th October. This particular area in Paris was continuously exploding with extertainment, sex, scandal and desire, leading it to become one of the most sought after real estate areas especially for indulgent artists including Pablo Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh.
Although the women, champagne and sex was flowing freely, it seemed there was something missing for those who had a depraved side; they wanted to see blood… In 1987 Le Theatre du Grand Guignol gave the public what they desired the most; depictions of the depraved, with their intense and shocking horror shows. Founder and original director, Oscar Metenier, was the son of the police commissioner and therefore had witnessed how the morals of low-life Paris were scattered and became unhinged the lower the levels discovered. It was this understanding and interest in the class and justice systems that helped Oscar to depict terrifying scenes of torture and murder during the shows at the Grand Guignol. One of the very first shows to be played out, entitled Mademoiselle Fifi, showed a prostitute on stage, something which had never been done before. Because of this particular characterisation, Metenier’s play came under tough scrutiny by the police and was temporarily shut down.
Even when it came to the theatre, horror was still the victim of censorship, something that in the extreme world will continue to be a problem and cause outrage amongst audiences, something that we will look at in more detail as we go through the decades. Fortunately, this form of censorship didn’t stop Metenier, and instead he realised that by creating something controversial, there was the potential for audiences to engage and love it even more. In 1898 Max Maurey came onboard as Director of the Grand Guignol, and was the reason that the theatre became known as the home of horror; where audience members could go to get their thirst quenched with depraved plays that featured realistic special effects, and experience a sense of arousal through terror.
Maurey brought in playwright Andre De Lorde, and together they produced horror plays that were drenched in gore and they became known for causing the audience to faint and even vomit on occasions. It was these reactions that Maurey and De Lorde used to measure their success – they believed that the night was a failure if there had not been at least one audience member who had fainted, and therefore they needed to keep the horror as shocking as possible. So that’s exactly what they decided to do; ensure that every play they delivered to the audience was more nihilistic in nature than the last one.
One of the most notable plays was the Le Laboratoire des Hallucinations, which saw a doctor stumble upon his wife’s lover in his operation room. Seeing it as a lucky opportunity to take revenge on the man, he performs brain surgery by chiseling into his brain in front of the audience. It was plays like this that caused wilhelm screams to echo throughout the audience, and saw bloody effects being put into full practice. Although heavily focused on gore in most aspects, the Grand Guignol was not afraid of the supernatural, and therefore this theme would constantly be repeated in many of the most popular plays.
In order to keep the extremness alive, and give reason to such awful acts like necrophilia, rape and torture, the theatre had to provide the audience with some form of explanation as to why anybody would do those things. Their go-to explanation was always insanity, as it didn’t need much more explanation other than that, but they also used other excuses for heinous crimes such as having lost their way from an induction by drugs or hypnosis. This theme was continued when Camille Choisy took over as Director in 1914, as it seemed that having a logical explanation pleased the audience, because they did not want to feel as if something so horrific could be carried out by someone of sane mind. Even though the audience loved to feel the fear and adrenaline, it was a form of escapism and they didn’t want to connect the dots too closely to reality in that sense.
That feeling of escapism and disconnect is similar to what we see today when it comes to extreme cinema; we often need something to disconnect us from the fact that these acts in extreme horror films are genuinely happening in the world. Therefore filmmakers add an element into their film that provides an anchor for us to justify what is happening; for example the brutal rape scenes in rape revenge movies sometimes seem easier to witness because we know that after this atrocity has finished, the wronged person will go on to slaughter all those involved and get the revenge they deserve. It’s that anchor that keeps us watching these disgusting and disturbing movies.
Choisy was responsible for hiring Paula Maxa, better known as “the most assassinated woman in the world”. During her working time at the theatre she was subject to over 3,000 rapes and 10,000 murders, in the creation of different ways which means that you could go to the theatre every night for a year and see her butchered on stage in a more creative way than the day before. She’s helmed as one of the hardest working Scream Queens to ever exist, and it seems more than a worthy title for a woman that truly devoted herself to the theatre and ensuring the audience got to see the horrible murders they expected so. Maxa became part of the legacy of the Grand Guignol and those that were lucky enough to see her perform would have seen her cut in 83 pieces, poisoned, eaten alive, strangled, scalped, burned, whipped, disemboweled, hung and more.
But in 1930 the theatre had another new Director, Jack Jouvin, who took the focus away from these gory and nasty depictions of death and focused the plays more towards psychological aspects. Although as proved in modern times, psychological can be frightening, Jouvin’s lack of knowledge about how to successfully use this trope became obvious when plays were haphazardly put together with so many over-the-top elements that it seemed they were making a Scary Movie version of themselves. The realistic element had been removed entirely, and the plays were trying too hard to scare the audience, something that the audience certainly didn’t need as they already loved the Grand Guignol for what it was.
The true decline of the theatre came shortly after WWII. When the streets were littered with war-torn families and decomposing bodies, there was no need to reenact horror because the audience didn’t need something that was already happening to them in their everyday lives. Such splendor for the seekers of horror, it was a shame that the iconic theatre could no longer draw in audience members, however, this change in pace and popularity for a genre is always changing depending on the current societal situations. The doors to the House of Horror closed in 1962, and left behind with them the first incident of extreme horror.
Before the Grand Guignol officially closed its doors, there was a little short horror film that was released which was considered to be heavily inspired by the visceral theatre, and a film that has been referenced in many modern horrors. That film was Un Chien Andalou aka An Andalusian Dog from Luis Brunel and Salvador Dali, which was released in 1929. This art movie has a quick and easy run time of 21 minutes, but does feature some disturbing scenes that are hard for the viewer to watch. Luis Brunel is a director and writer who is specifically known for his surrealist films, and he collaborated with an exceptionally famous household known, Salvador Dali, who is most commonly known for his surrealist art but came on to Un Chien as the co-writer.
Un Chien Andalou is famous for one of it’s most detailed and graphic scenes – a close-up of a woman’s eye being slit open by a razor blade, a scene which recurs in many later extreme films. Fortunately for the audience the eye being cut open is not really the woman’s, but instead an animal’s eye being slit open which makes the scene feel very realistic due to using an actual living creature’s organ to carry out the violence. The film also features dismembered hands, dream like sequences, murder and strange acts, all of which were designed to shock the audience of the time. Even though it had some disturbing elements that did leave the audience exasperated, they loved it, which shows how we have always been obsessed with the macabre, even when it is violent and disturbing.
In the next article about Extreme Horror we’ll be looking at how the 60s (when the Grand Guignol closed its door) started to see more and more extreme movies being made to satisfy the cravings of the perturbed.