Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Dream palaces: Richard Stanley hymns London’s Scala cinema | Sight & Sound

Dream palaces: Richard Stanley hymns London’s Scala cinema | Sight & Sound

The Scala was one of the greatest cinemas of all time. It came along at exactly the right time in my life. I first went there in 1984 when I was 18. I was on the run from the military police, having deserted the South African army. I was wandering around North London as a young illegal immigrant wondering what the hell I was going to do. I tried to make contact with my uncle but he refused to open the door to me. I saw the Scala had an all-day all-nighter going on and tickets were really cheap, around £2.40. I thought, “OK, I’ll sleep in the cinema and figure out what to do tomorrow.”

It was my good luck that on the bill was non-stop Dario Argento. In that single sitting I saw all eight movies Dario had made up to that point. I didn’t sleep, obviously. I’d only heard rumours about Argento in South Africa. Under apartheid, horror and devil-orientated movies were banned.

The show opened my eyes to all I had been missing. I don’t think it’s possible for words to encapsulate what it’s like seeing the first ten minutes of Suspiria [1977] on a big screen, the size of the close-ups, the richness of the colours. By the time I stumbled out the next day I knew what I wanted to do with my life.

Not long after, there was a test screening of Argento’s Phenomena [1984]. I spotted Dario looking nervous outside. I went up and told him how much I admired him. I gave him the joint I was smoking. He was very relieved and then took my name and telephone number. A week later I got a phone call saying, “Your friend Dario wants to talk to you.” From then on I became Dario’s point person whenever he was in town and needed something to smoke.

The Scala originally opened as the King’s Cross Cinema in 1920. It was a live music venue in the 70s before a short stint as London’s only primatarium [a monkey house] in 1979.

When the cinema reopened in 1981, there were still tropical murals all over the walls and deserted cages and a safari urine-type smell in the basement. The auditorium always felt like it was an extension of the movies showing there. When you saw Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke [1978] plus The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension [1984] plus Roger Corman’s The Trip [1967] on the same bill, you knew you’d be met by a wall of marijuana smoke and everyone would be tripping off their faces.

I ended up living there. Jane Giles [Scala programme manager 1988-92] sheltered me after I lost everything on Dust Devil [1992]. I was about £200,000 in debt and on the run from every bailiff in town. I was hiding out above the Scala when we were first screening the prints. The film’s producer Nik Powell was showing up every evening, casing our box-office takes to try and cashflow the end of The Crying Game [1992].

I did find myself making movies for Scala audiences. In Hardware [1990] there are little beats after the characters say stupid one-liners which are only there for the audience to yell back at the screen. I expect a degree of audience participation. It must be hard these days to understand what a genuine cult movie is about. You can’t just watch a film at home with your friends. You need to watch it with 300 other deranged people for it to have its full effect.

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