The obvious question is why only three exclamation marks? There’s enough mayhem, mischief and subversive tales crammed into this winningly lo-fi documentary – and the London cinema it memorialises – to warrant slinging at least a couple more onto the title.
London’s legendary Scala Cinema, which closed its doors for the last time in 1993, was never a place to settle down for a quiet night of movie watching. Filmgoers could feel the Tube trains rattling by below them, the toilet cubicles would often shake with semi-furtive activity, and at one of the legendary all-nighters, someone found a corpse. Huston and Roy, the cinema’s cats, would patrol around, terrifying the unwary or high. Across 15 years and 40,000 screenings, it was a place where life would imitate art in all sorts of colourful ways – even when you were watching a John Carpenter movie – and it gets the kind of lovingly gonzo elegy it deserves via this entertaining documentary.
Scala!!! is made by ex-Time Out-ers Jane Giles, a former Scala programmer, and Ali Catterall with a scrapbook-and-sticky-tape aesthetic very much in keeping with its subject. Old Scala-heads like Ralph Brown (Danny from Withnail and I) and Adam Buxton are welcomed back into their old haunt for enjoyable on-camera reminiscences. John Waters even pops up from his San Francisco apartment with some typically entertaining observations and memories (‘A country club for criminals and lunatics and people who were high,’ is how the American auteur describes Scala – the highest of praise).
Take a trip to one of the cultiest corners of cinema and embrace the weirdness
It’s instructive how many British filmmakers used to go to the Scala, from Peter Strickland to Ben Wheatley, soaking up the anything-goes programming ethos that championed everything from Eraserhead to ’70s black-and-white porno Thundercrack! (no one can quite explain how the latter found its way into Scala lore). ‘It was as if the building had recommended these films to you,’ remembers comedian Stewart Lee.
In the end, even ‘anything goes’ has its limits. An illegal screening of Kubrick’s banned A Clockwork Orange was one of the things that finally put it out of business in the early ’90s. The fact that it was organised by Giles herself is a bittersweet detail that tickles Waters pink. Being hauled up in court in the cause of cinema, he notes, is a noble calling.
As a piece of London social history, Scala!!! is winningly leftfield and its spirit is wildly infectious. But you could watch it without having been within a thousand miles of this once-seedy corner of King’s Cross and still get a kick out of it. Take a trip to one of the cultiest corners of cinema and embrace the weirdness.
In UK cinemas Jan 5, 2024.