John Waters, Peter Strickland, Isaac Julien, Ben Wheatley and Lina Gopaul are just a few of the filmmakers who attended the Scala Cinema between 1978 and 1993. These were the glorious 15 years when the most audacious, obscure, pornographic and avant-garde films were projected onto the silver screen of London’s most infamous film venue. Many of these films couldn’t be seen anywhere else, and your entrance was nearly guaranteed regardless of your age and the certificate that the film received. This is as close as you get to filmgoing anarchy.
Watching the colourful members of the audience was just as exciting as the movie itself. Darkness prevailed (the lights rarely went on even between the films), allowing all sorts of activity to place, virtually without boundaries. A fertile ground for weirdos, queers, punks and all sorts of misfits. The soil was cold concrete sticky with alcohol, bodily fluids and other substances. The chairs were hard wood and extremely uncomfortable (one of them is miraculously rescued for this doc), presumably forcing people into awkward and alternative sitting positions. People drank, smoked, talked loud, vomited, urinated and engaged in sexual activity in the auditorium, the corridors and the toilet. This anarchic scenario is vaguely reminiscent of the early days of cinema, when hookers and criminals casually roamed your local movie theatre.
The audience behaviour could get a little extreme. At least a couple of people died: a heart attack and suicide. Perhaps The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981) or some disturbing horror or exploitation movie triggered someone to take their own life, the police speculates. The Scala was a place of many emotions. The action started on Tottenham Street before it moved to the larger Kings Cross building in the early 1980s, a previous music venue (where Iggy Pop and Lou Reed played) and a Primatarium (an “ecological” showcase of caged monkeys). The primates were far less unruly than the humans that would frequent the building a few years later. The first and the last film shown at the Scala was King Kong (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933), in a fitting tribute to the bizarre history of the building.
Provocation was the Scala’s biggest selling point. The repertoire cinema would show dirty movies all night long, in a marathon entitled Shock Around the Clock. American pornographic comedy Thundercrack! (Curt McDowell, 1975) was amongst their most popular and perhaps their most regular feature. Other favourites included the filthiest movie of all time Pink Flamingos (John Waters, 1972), wacky surreal drama Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977), dark sex comedy Taxi to the Toilet (Frank Ripploh, 1981), and a little lighthearted fun (such as the occasional Laurel and Hardy movie).
This documentary was co-directed byJane Giles, Scala programme manager between 1978 and 1982, and Ali Catterall, journalist and Scala regular. It blends clips from the films named above and many more with interviews with filmmakers, musicians, writers and activists who attended and became inspired by both the films and the exotic environment. This structurally conventional documentary also includes an energetic score by Barry Adamson (the iconic British composer too was a regular, and one of the talking heads interviewees), a touch of hand-drawn animation, and abundant psychedelic posters from the time. The Scala was a living and breathing creature, with its own exquisite sounds, smells and textures. It was also a nesting ground for creatives. A safe haven for queers (at a time homosexuality Section 28 prohibited “the promotion of homosexuality”). A delicious type of family reunion. A place that could not exist in the strictly regulated and far more conservative 21st century.
The demise of the Scala was not voluntary, but instead a direct repercussion of censorship and the obscene costs of navigating the legal system. That’s not the type of obscenity we love. Bring back the dirty old cinemas. Even if that means being punished. John Waters ascertains: going to prison in the name of film is a price we all should be prepared to pay!
Scala!!! is cinemas across the UK and Ireland on Friday, January 5th. It’s out on Blu-ray and also available for streaming on BFI Player on Monday, January 22nd. A season of the Scala’s greatest hits, Scala: Sex, drugs and rock and roll cinema, runs at BFI Southbank throughout January.