wed 21/02/2024

Scala!!! review - a grindhouse cinema remembers | reviews, news & interviews

Scala!!! review - a grindhouse cinema remembers

Scala!!! review - a grindhouse cinema remembers

Energetic doc evokes cinemagoing as a wild, life-changing event

The Scala now

This week, the makers of Scala!!! threw a party in what remains of its subject – a notorious, beloved repertory cinema in then sleazy King’s Cross, born 1981, dead 1993, and now a dowdier music venue.

The auditorium was cut up, shrunk and sanitised, the seats where hundreds got lost in an especially dank darkness long gone. But old shapes were mentally sketched by ageing regulars as a small screen defiantly unspooled copious gore, nudity and energetic depravity in trailers for Reform School GirlsThundercrack!, Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Pasolini’s Salo, Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude, Russ Meyer’s Supervixen, Borowczyk’s mind-juddering The Beast… the exploitation is unfashionable, but all those wild, bloody or naked men and women looked so alive. These repeated hits of Scala energy sent signals across space and time of an underground mindset, a formative generational culture.

This was a final act of remembrance before Scala!!!’s release by its co-directors, the cinema’s former programme manager Jane Giles and regular Ali Catterall, following Giles’s Scala book. Their documentary is fast-cut like a film the late cinema might have screened, but all this activity on its behalf emphasises another quality.

“There’s a sense of melancholy and loss,” Catterall told me, “because it deals with what once was that can never really be again.”

Scala programmeA film about a London cinema which shut 30 years ago seems ludicrously niche. Yet many regulars travelled from across southern England and beyond, and were Goth, gay or horror-loving escapees from the socially oppressive Thatcher years which frame Scala!!!. Interviewees include Kill List director Ben Wheatley, who recalls a place that was “rough as fuck…almost medieval”. Adam Buxton merrily conjures an eccentric establishment “like an embassy that’s fallen out of use…a left-field Narnia”. “I remember being shocked,” John Waters, (pictured below), tellingly claims. “It was like they were a country club for criminals and lunatics and people that were high. Which is a good way to see movies…”.

The tube trains which shook the Scala’s foundations and its prowling cats added to its sensory overload. I was a regular from 1985, first going in the daytime, when, ex-usher Vic Roberts recalls, “it was like the cinema hadn’t drunk any wine yet, and the building itself was more sober and sensible”. That day’s Burt Lancaster triple-bill creatively encompassed his talent, from deep noir debut The Killers (1946) through surf-rolling superstardom in From Here to Eternity (1953) to the devastating masculine breakdown of The Swimmer (1968), whose trunk-wearing protagonist suggested Eternity’s similarly attired hero’s disintegration in the course of a Scala afternoon.

John Waters in Scala!!!Hardcore Scala was the 10-film Shock Around the Clock festivals, programmed in defiance of the 1984 Video Recording Act’s ban on “video nasties”: The Evil DeadThe Driller KillerBasket Case. Others saw emotionally sensitive and/or pornographic gay or fetish films. Bolstered by neighbouring gay pub The Bell, the Scala’s King’s Cross was safe as well as sketchy. This was the cinema that shame forgot, a place to be yourself. “The Scala became for me a refuge,” video artist and Handsworth Songs director Sir John Akomfrah says.

Some personalise and feminise the Scala like it was family, with an eerie, mostly benign life-force. “It’s almost like the building itself recommended these films to you,” Stewart Lee considers.

Video shop culture (and perhaps more adventurous TV screenings) pushed Giles’s booking efforts still further out in the Nineties. “There was a film I’d heard of but never seen called Twister,” she told me recently, “with Harry Dean Stanton, Crispin Glover and William S. Burroughs, and I persuaded the American cultural attaché to bring this very strange film into the UK in the diplomatic bag!” Assailed on too many financial fronts, the cinema shut in 1993. Scala!!! notes numerous later deaths among habitués, suggesting the cost of extreme cultures and their lonely, brave adherents.

Just as the films the Scala championed drank from an outlaw, rock’n’roll elixir, so Scala!!! goes beyond an ageing coterie's nostalgia to confirm the continuing value of our communal counter-cultures, and the other lives you can dream in the dark.

Some personalise and feminise the Scala like it was family, with an eerie, mostly benign life-force

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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