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The Scala Of Tomorrow: Where Is Cult Cinema Today?



Scala Panel
The Scala cinema (image courtesy of Getty / BFI London Film Festival)

Sticky seats, loud heckling, and the not-so-vague hint of booze. These are the remains of the Scala Cinema for those ever-devoted fans. Following the release of the documentary SCALA!!! Or, the Incredibly Strange Rise and Fall of the World’s Wildest Cinema and How It Influenced a Mixed-Up Generation of Weirdos and Misfits (Ali Catterall and Jane Giles, 2023), a wave of adulation and nostalgia for a cinema which displayed its kitsch kookiness proudly on its chest has arisen. Wing-manned by a BFI season of Scala cult film staples, memories of the Scala and of ye olden days of cult cinema, seem to be floating in the ether, swirled in with whiffs of bottom-shelf whiskey.


However, there is something at odds here. Look to the panel Scala Spirit 1993-2023, part of the BFI’s Scala: Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll Cinema season. This was a celebration of Scala, what it meant back then and what it means today to those who loved, and love, that weirdest of cinemas. It was also an opportunity for the panellists to share movies from the past decade or so that they would choose to show in the Scala. Student film editor Daniella Alconaba chose Rotting in the Sun (Sebastián Silva, 2023) an eclectic blue of mobile phones and penises, SCALA!!! co-director Ali Catterall went for the magnificently unnerving Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013), whilst other selections, from Censor (2021) director Prano Bailey-Bond and film critic Sukhdev Sandhu, ranged from the controversy fire-lighter Titane (Julia Ducournau, 2021) to the creepy uncle of the movie world The Human Centipede (Tom Six, 2009). Strangely, only one of the four panellists had actually been to the Scala when it was open. The other three had never been, whether because they were too young, not even born, or just missed the boat. Yet, there they were, ensconced in Scala, able to filter out the Scala-worthy films from the standard Hollywood gruel.


It is worth mentioning that I have also never been to the Scala cinema. Founded in 1979, the Scala cinema was the ultimate sub-cultural hangout spot for all fans of the depraved, degenerate, and downright mind-boggling. Described by director Ali as if a cinema was a Punk gig, the Scala was a haven for outcasts and weirdos. Midnight movie classics, such as Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977) and Pink Flamingos (John Waters, 1972), were on regular rotation, advertised by the famously eclectic, pop-art listings, essentially menus of weird serving freaky aficionados. Sadly, after a screening of A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971), the ultimate taboo film of its time, Scala was sued and, eventually, shut down. You can still see it; venture left out of King’s Cross Station and there it stands, the blood-red neon sign still buzzing. It is a gig venue now, with a seedy-looking pool hall situated in the back. Fortunately, Scala has managed to stave off the ever-growing virus of luxury apartments sweeping London’s architectural heritage. 


I was not alive in the ‘80s. I have never been to the Scala. Yet, like the panellists, I too know what a Scala film is. Explicit nudity, exploding heads, and more taboos than Mary Whitehouse could shake a fist at, are just some of the features which I, and many others, recognise as Scala, as cult. Somehow, the ghost of Scala has remained, possessing the consciousness of young film fans, as it did in the past.


Hence why the roaring laughter of the Scala crowds can still be heard in the halls of BFI Southbank today. But is this enough? With no seats to be sticky and no R-rated screenings to sneak into, where do the underground weirdos go today? The answer lies beyond the pixellated boundary, on the internet. Cult film, sub-culture, now lives online. Whether on niche Tumblr forums, icky Subreddits, or in YouTube Comments, this generation's Scala is virtual. Think of YouTube greats such as Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared (2011-2016) or the ever-freaky Salad Fingers (2004–). Sesame Street characters covered in pulsing chunks of flesh and child-roasting, green-fingered nightmare stalker named “Salad Fingers” certainly seem to fit the Scala bill. Do you remember showing these videos to your parents, excited to finally share something that is definitely not for children, proving yourself as, finally, worthy of the title of adult—all before being met with a confused look of concern, as painful being stripped of your Nintendo DS at bedtime? This look of concern was, for some of us, an early realisation that perhaps our filmic interests went beyond Bambi. This is where our generation made our first sub-cultural steps, linking with other freaks through likes, comments, and shares.


Of course, surfing the web is not confined to four walls like the Scala. The wave indefinitely rolls, perhaps leading some to get caught in the riptide and end up on the wrong side of the beach. Whilst it showed some weird stuff, Scala was always there for a good time. It was provocative but playful, in many ways more about the people than what was on screen. Met with crowds of greyed-out avatars and a barrage of genuinely horrifying content at each anonymous icon’s fingertips, the internet is a scary place for cult cinema, and sub-culture in general, to be situated. There are some beautiful nuggets of weirdness, ripe for sharing on group chats and between classrooms, but this realm of cult goes beyond not only the walls of a building, but the bounds of the screen itself, bleeding into reality.


While the memory of the Scala is still engraved in the nasal passages of film fans, a new playground of sub-cultural weirdness is in full swing. The internet is messier, scarier, and much more dangerous than the Scala ever was, and I’m not sure I like that this is where the weirdos of today meet. Swimming in the virtual layers between hyperlinks, it can be hard to discern the fun-loving freaks from the discomforting incels. But this is cult cinema, comprised of good and a lot of bad, never stable and always changing. The Scala may be long shut down but the internet has already made its mark on sub-culture; A Clockwork Orange is readily available to stream online. So cult cinema, and sub-culture, is now ever more accessible, ever more fun, and doubly disturbing. I’ll continue to follow the trail of the weird and wonderful, cautious that when the map of cult expands to encompass all that it can offer, the edges, the shadows in the corners of the land, are enveloped in what is traversable. So I will tread lightly, as excited and nervous as I have always been.


 

Edited by Oisín McGilloway, Co-Film & TV Editor

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