Dream palaces: Richard Stanley hymns London’s Scala cinema

The director of Dust Devil, Hardware and Color Out of Space recalls dealing drugs to Dario Argento at the cultiest of all London cinemas.

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Isabel Stevens

Illustration by Lucinda Rogers

Illustration by Lucinda Rogers

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.

Richard Stanley

Richard Stanley

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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