Stage Blood

Contemporary horror movies often leave little to the imagination. Death, monsters, violence, torture, and, of course, blood are so much in view that they often stop being so scary. To raise the threshold, we add more death, more torture, and more blood. It's what we expect in a good slasher flick. We weren't always this overexposed (or maybe this jaded). Early horror classics like Nosferatu or The Phantom of the Opera seldom resort to showing gore. Yet at the time, those movies were considered sufficiently frightening. Where was the shift to our fascination with blood? These questions are raised by Nosedive Productions's The Blood Brothers Present: An Evening of Grand Guignol Horror.

Grand Guignol was the French theatrical tradition of shock and suspense that flourished in the early part of the 20th century. Its plays were characterized by the violence portrayed onstage: decapitation, eye gouging, and other forms of mutilation. Drug-induced altered states and sex were also common themes. It could easily be considered an early equivalent of the American horror movies that have become popular during the past 30 years.

An Evening of Grand Guignol Horror is structured like a traditional Grand Guignol show. It consists of several short plays: in this case, an introduction and five different scenarios. Two segments, "The Final Kiss" and "The Kiss of Blood," are classic French plays, written in 1912 and 1929, respectively. The remaining segments are modern interpretations of terror, created by members of Nosedive Productions. Blood was prominently featured in all of them.

The two French plays were the highlight of the evening. They required the most from the actors (the other scenes contained little to no dialogue, save for agonized screaming) and involved actual staging. While they might have once been horrifying, the plays now seem overly melodramatic and campy. Acid burns, peeling skin, and mutilated fingers elicited giggles instead of gasps of shock.

But the directors—Pete Boisvert for "The Final Kiss" and Patrick Shearer for "The Kiss of Blood"—had everyone play it straight, which was absolutely the right choice. Instead of trying too hard to make these scripts seem relevant or winking at the silliness of it all, they allowed the audience to find the fun and enjoy the action. The performers in both sketches were also right on target, delivering lines earnestly without hamming it up.

In contrast, the three modern sketches were much more exaggerated; they were exactly what an audience would expect from an evening of horror. Psychological torture and twisted irony dominated these scenes. "Lights Out" and "Blinded," two bookend pieces, were the most violent. "Vagina Dentata" was certainly the most graphic.

Because they were really just skits, they were less engaging than the Grand Guignol plays. They also were played with all seriousness, but when compared to the other pieces, they seemed too self-conscious and even ridiculous. This is in no way a reflection on the company's creative work, but simply a result of two contradictory styles.

An Evening of Grand Guignol Horror, on one level, was a fun evening of entertainment. Stage blood generally makes for a lively experience, especially around Halloween. Upon closer inspection, the show provided a thought-provoking observation—certainly for this reviewer—about our culture's current fascination with pain and gore, and explored the boundaries of what we consider truly shocking.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post