Tales From the Cutting Edge

on November 03, 2008 by Steve Simels
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One final note on my trip to Paris last week: My one regret is that I didn't get a chance to check out the former location -- on the Rue Chaptal in the famous Pigalle district -- of Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol . For those of you who aren't scholars of obscure sadistic cultural arcana, the Grand Guignol was a theater company that, for decades (beginning in the 1890s) offered up the stage equivalent of what in the 60s came to be called Gore Films, which is to say little playlets with lurid plots and highly realistic special effects featuring people being dismembered in all sorts of interesting ways. The place was hugely popular for quite a while; it was, in fact, as must-see (and as disreputable) a Parisien tourist attraction as a cabaret like the Moulin Rouge, and its name has long since entered the language as a synonym for dramatic squirm-inducing horror.

To my knowledge, no actual cinematic record of what went on at the Grand Guignol has survived, but you can get a pretty good idea of what one of its productions must have looked like from this excerpt from Mad Love , the fabulous 1935 horror flick featuring Peter Lorre as scientist in love with Frances Drake , star of a GG-like theater whose character was based on Paula Maxa , a real-life GG actress who was reputed to have been murdered and raped onstage more than 10,000 times.

In any case, I was particularly sorry to have missed the place because while I was in the City of Lights, posters for Saw V, the latest entry in a film series whose entire esthetic seems to be based to a large degree on the old Grand Guignol, were ubiquitous on every street corner. So ubiquitous, in fact, that upon my return to the States one of the first things I did was head to my local Hell Octaplex to check the thing out for myself. Here's the trailer, in case, like me, you've never really paid attention to the Saw franchise before.

To be honest, I was a little disappointed, mostly because the gore struck me as probably less terrifying than what you might have seen onstage back in the day, but in any case, my colleague Ray Greene put the film and the whole contemporary torture porn genre in its larger cultural and political context (i.e., post 9/11 and Gitmo) in his review last week. I couldn't agree more with his conclusions, but I should add that he undersells just how cheesy Saw V is, albeit charmingly so. It really has (in a way that frankly surprised me) the look and feel of a vintage 60s drive-in cheapo; with its weirdly awful lighting, unconvincing TV studio interiors, and determinedly mediocre acting from an ensemble whose main talents seem to be vaguely reminding you of other better and more attractive performers, it could only be more likably fatuous if it was in black-and-white and starred Brett Halsey .

Incidentally, the actual Grand Guignol closed its doors in 1962. "We could never equal Buchenwald," said its final director, Charles Nonon , on the theatre's decline and fall. "Before the war, everyone felt that what was happening onstage was impossible. Now we know that these things, and worse, are possible in reality."

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