Horror By the Sub-Genres: Theatrical Performance Horror

In a theatrical performance, there is an obvious deception that is accepted by both the audience and the performers. On a stage seventy-five feet wide with a fake sunset painted on a backdrop and plywood castle walls dressed in colored construction paper, the audience must be willing to buy into the blatant fantasy that is Hamlet’s Denmark. The performers accept it as well, altering their natural voice and body to the over-enunciation, volume, and broad gestures necessary for the performance to reach the back of the theater.

Everything about it is fake, and yet we have all agreed to believe it. And we do it precisely because it is safe. We can watch the actor portraying Count Dracula, or we can watch the magician sawing his assistant in half, and allow ourselves to be taken in by the story because we know we are in no danger. We take risks in the theater that we wouldn’t take in life; the classic Grand Guignol stage shows of Paris, where horrible violence was visited on victims while a crowd watched, became so popular because audiences could witness the immediacy of the violence while still protected by the unspoken agreement between audience and performer. We don’t believe the magician has truly sawed a woman in half, but we like to be fooled.

But an agreement only works when both parties abide by the rules. A deranged performer, who already has the trust of his audience, can betray that trust: he can actually injure, murder, or dismember someone in front of them, psychologically implicating them in the violence and murder. A brief but brilliant example of this is seen in the Vampire Theater in director Neil Jordan’s “Interview With the Vampire”; an audience witnesses a coven of vampires feeding on an innocent woman, but they suspect it to be nothing more than a strange, gothic performance.

That is where theatrical performance and horror film meet. We all know horror movies aren’t real, but we like to be fooled, anyway. And every once in a while, with a truly amazing special effect or a disturbing performance from an unknown actor in a found footage film, we might wonder to ourselves… it’s not possible that this is real, right?

The sub-genre has been active in various degrees since the early to mid-1970’s, beginning with the Pete Walker proto-slasher “The Flesh and Blood Show” (1972), with one of the more notorious entries being the Troma-released “Bloodsucking Freaks” (1976). Here are four recommendations for further exploration into the sub-genre:

THE CLASSIC- Stage Fright (1987)

Also known as “Aquarius”, this early Italian slasher film brought together “Anthropophagus” writer George Eastman with director and Argento contemporary and collaborator Michele Soavi to tell the story of a small group of actors locked in a theater with a killer wearing an owl mask.


THE MODERN- Wizard of Gore (remake)

Though the original Herschell Gordon Lewis film from 1970 may be more notorious, this remake by “The Attic Expeditions” director Jeremy Kasten is a virtual who’s who of horror and indie greats. Genre veterans Jeffrey Combs and Brad Dourif join the eccentric but always interesting Crispin Glover, along with indie stars Bijou Phillips and Kip Pardue, to tell the story of Montag the Magnificent, whose violent on-stage performances match the wounds of bodies found by investigators.


THE OBSCURE- Blood Fiend (a.k.a. Theatre of Death)

In the wake of Hammer Film Productions’ domination of the horror market from the late 1950’s until the slasher boom in the 1980’s, many companies tried to get in on the genre of classy British horror, often with mixed results. One such result was “Blood Fiend”, starring Hammer mega-star Christopher Lee and Julian Glover, later to become known as Nazi collaborator Walter Donovan in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”. The story follows a police surgeon whose connections to a Parisian theatre come into question when bloodless bodies show up in town that could be connected to their performances.


THE REINVENTION- The Theatre Bizarre (2011)

An anthology film which uses a creepy, abandoned theatre as the location for a disturbing stage show which recounts six bizarre tales, “The Theatre Bizarre” features the always-frightening Udo Kier as the slightly-too-human puppet host, Peg Poett.


Chris Vander Kaay and Kathleen Fernandez-Vander Kaay


Chris Vander Kaay and Kathleen Fernandez-Vander Kaay are a husband and wife writing team who agree on almost everything except whether or not 28 Days Later should be considered a zombie movie. After years devoted to interviews, podcasts, and articles in which they championed the idea that the horror film genre should be taken seriously, they hope the idea is finally catching on.

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