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Theater Notes: 80 gallons of blood a month

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Mick Napier has always been a sucker for slice-'n'-dice, hack-'em-up movies. Over the years, he says, he's seen plenty of antisocial psycho-killers (sometimes already dead themselves) slash up their onscreen victims (often horny teenagers) by the dozens. He's seen critical classics (including the work of David Cronenberg and George Romero), popular classics (Friday the 13th, Halloween), and nonclassics (Happy Birthday to Me, My Bloody Valentine).

Among his favorites, though, are the movies of Herschell Gordon Lewis, a former Chicago adman and movie producer widely considered the father of "splatter cinema." In his first gory picture, Blood Feast (1963), Lewis had limbs, tongues, and even brains ripped from living victims. Such graphic mutilation scenes are the rule in modern splatter movies, but they were still taboo then. By the time movie taboos had relaxed and more-polished splatter films drove him out of business in the early 70s, Lewis had cranked out nine more movies, most of which Napier has seen.

So when Napier, an improv teacher at Second City, learned that Lewis had also produced splatter theater--the Blood Shed Theatre opened on Wells Street in 1967--he liked the idea so much that he decided to imitate it. The result, a show called Splatter Theater, is currently running at Cotton Chicago.

Before starting the project, Napier studied up on Lewis. He learned that Lewis had taken his inspiration from the Theatre du Grand Guignol, a macabre playhouse in Paris that opened in 1899 and was still operating as late as 1959. The action at the Grand Guignol was all live, Napier says, but Lewis and his staff changed the format somewhat: "They'd hire hookers from around the neighborhood to get 'killed,' stage two or three effects, and then show one of his movies." The storefront window held two dismembered mannequins; electrically pumped stage blood flowed from their eyes.

In true splatter-movie tradition, Napier's show is weak on plot and strong on special effects. The action revolves around a party, thrown by a new kid in town, where one by one the guests are killed off by various grisly means: throat-slittings, multiple stabbings, even disembowelings.

Splatter Theater originally ran for about three months last fall at CrossCurrents--until the club closed. The show had been playing to such consistently packed houses that for the last six weeks of its run Napier and crew actually paid the gas and insurance bills to keep the theater open.

When the blues club Cotton Chicago recently opened in the same space, Napier discovered that although the props had disappeared, the set was still intact. He got back in touch with some of last year's cast and crew, including Doug Hartzell, a friend of Napier's from college who designed the set last year. This year, Hartzell and his company, Edge Productions, helped produce the show along with Napier and two other friends.

Napier also signed on a newcomer, Steve Gusler, to spruce up the special effects. Gusler, whose recent local work includes Ghost Watch and Four Portraits of Mothers, has done special effects for live theater for more than 20 years and runs a "prop-oriented magic" company called Tech F/X. This show is a special-effects man's dream, Gusler says. He says he thinks this is the first time anybody's worked with "this much stuff."

With Gusler's help, Napier and the other producers increased the number of blood gags from 13 to 19 and added some more impressive feats. Probably the easiest is a throat slitting: a bulb full of stage blood and a tube are attached to a dulled knife, and when the actor draws the knife across the victim's throat, he squeezes the bulb, forcing the blood out the tube.

The most troublesome gag to work with, says Gusler, was a scalping. The victim wears a fake piece of scalp, a prop several layers thick with a complicated bleeding apparatus. Because it's so intricate, it can't be slapped on right before the gag, Gusler says; instead, the actor has to wear it all night, and "it was hard to find something that would attach these layers to skin without tearing or harming it."

The obvious problem with producing special effects onstage rather than onscreen is that there's no second take, no editing room. Movie makers can film a gag four or five times and use the best shoot, says Gusler, but "we don't get a best one." His props are rigged so they require only the smallest manipulation by the actors wearing them. But any gag can go wrong; there were times last year, says Hartzell, when the blood bulb in a knife wouldn't go off.

All total, the various effects require about 80 gallons of blood a month, Napier says. His recipe for stage blood calls for a mix of chocolate syrup and red food coloring. As Gusler explains, "It's very easy to mix, and it gives good texture." To duplicate human organs, they buy animal tongues, livers, kidneys, brains, and intestines (stuffed with vanilla and chocolate pudding for the stage) fresh from the butcher every weekend. "We go from a white set to a red set during the course of the show," Gusler says.

The set is simple: one room with a door, a window, a cabinet, and a couch. Last year, because there was only one performance a night, the set was repainted after every show with a heavy white primer called, appropriately enough, Kilz. This year, because there are two shows a night, Hartzell found an enzyme-based cleaner that removes the goo from the walls.

Lewis and his Blood Shed employees, says Napier, "were actually trying to scare people. We're not trying to scare anyone." The plot and gags, both developed through improvisation, are parodies, and Napier considers humor more important than realism. "I don't want people to leave their seats because they're grossed out."

On the other hand, he admits, no one really comes to see the show for its laughs. They come for the same reason splatter movies always draw big crowds, for "the same reason people slow down for a car accident"--a sort of dark curiosity. "Most people are intrigued by this," Napier says. "It's just an uncomfortable thing to admit."

Splatter Theater II plays Thursdays at 8 PM and Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and midnight at Cotton Chicago, 3204 N. Wilton. Tickets are $8.99; make reservations at 929-6200.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Loren Santow.

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