SCALA SPIRIT: 30 transgressive films perfect for a raucous midnight screening

30 years since the demise of London’s legendary Scala cinema – a haven for mavens of arthouse obscurities and gloriously scuzzy cinema – we celebrate the new documentary Scala!!! by asking writers, critics and filmmakers – including John Waters, Bette Gordon, Peter Strickland and Edgar Wright – for the post-Scala flicks they’d put on the bill were the cinema still open today.

A rendering of the Scala in pink, as taken from Jane Giles’s book Scala Cinema 1978-1993; the King Kong-esque tabby cat, Roy, ruled the box office

Scala!!! The very name has become synonymous with post-punk transgression and subversion. This most infamous of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll picturehouses, in the heart of King’s Cross in London, was a beacon for weirdos and misfits during the tumultuous Thatcher years.

But the Scala was more than just a lodestar – its repertory fare galvanised a generation of filmmakers, artists, musicians and more. Not coincidentally, it was ultimately programmed by that audience. If a film performed well, it was shown again – and again. Take Thundercrack! (1975): the legend is that there existed just one print of Curt McDowell’s notorious art-porn oddity, and it was fed through the cinema’s barnacled 16mm projector so often that it eventually fell apart.

A crucial part of this ecosystem was the Scala Selection Box. Punters would post their dream triple bills through the slot, often the most extreme material: Café Flesh (1982), Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), Supervixens (1975), Pink Flamingos (1972). The programme promised: “ The film with the most votes gets screened. Fun, huh?!!”

As former Scala programmer Jane Giles wryly asked in her 2018 book Scala Cinema 1978-1993, “What could possibly go wrong?” The scrawled suggestions for the box, she recalled, “ranged from the mundane to the ridiculous and the inspired – often including titles which had never even made it into production. One Saliva Bubble by David Lynch, anyone?” One has to admire the chutzpah of the Scala member who requested “Valley of the Dolls. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. And Valley Girl.”

The interior of the Scala cinema

Sometimes it was wiser to ignore certain things that flopped through the letterbox, especially requests to screen A Clockwork Orange (1971), as the Scala found to its immense cost: the cinema became embroiled in a year-long court case brought by the Federation Against Copyright Theft (Fact) after an illicit screening of Kubrick ’s film in 1992.

It’s tantalising to wonder what films might have played had it not closed the next year. Below you’ll find examples of films from the last 30 years that might have ended up in the box, and on the bill, had the cinema survived.

The Scala certainly functioned as an unofficial film school for dozens of filmmakers, including Peter Strickland, Mary Harron, Ben Wheatley and Martin McDonagh (proud winner of a Scala programme caption competition in April 1992); it ’s no surprise to find so many of their movies suffused with that ol’ ‘Scala Spirit’, a most intoxicating liquor.

Strickland credits a single programme in particular: February 1990, the month he first encountered the Scala (and London: his mum insisted he took his name and address on a piece of paper “in case I got lost”) with influencing his entire filmography. You can see what he means: on that month was Kenneth Anger’s Magick Lantern Cycle (1947-81); Dario Argento’s Opera (1987); Eraserhead (1977); Peeping Tom (1960); and, courtesy of a ‘Bitches, Whips and Heels’ all-nighter from BDSM magazine Skin Two, Venus in Furs (1969), Maîtresse (1976) and Mano destra (1986)… Strickland’s own catalogue slides into such stuff like a lubricated fist.

Similarly possessed by the Scala spirit, one can easily imagine Matthew Barney or Darren Aronofsky competing for attention on the Scala’s monthlies, alongside Lucile Hadžihalilović, Gaspar Noé, Harmony Korine, Gregg Araki and Todds Haynes and Solondz – or ageing enfants terribles like Larry Clark and Lars von Trier. Plus all-nighters from Kevin Smith, Edgar Wright, Roberto Rodriguez, the Wachowskis, the later works of Miyazaki Hayao and Studio Ghibli, as well as films by former Scala regular Christopher Nolan.

A Scala programme

The cinema was also instrumental in introducing East Asian filmmakers such as John Woo and Jackie Chan to broader audiences; it’s pleasing to fantasise about an alternative history in which not just Park Chanwook, Bong Joon Ho and Miike Takashi but the likes of Yeon Sangho and Nishimura Yoshihiro have found an ecstatic reception in the UK thanks to the Scala. Of the younger crop of directors, the cinema would surely have embraced Ari Aster, Jordan Peele, Prano Bailey-Bond (Censor, 2021), Luna Carmoon (Hoard), Nia DaCosta (the superb 2021 Candyman reboot) and Julia Ducournau, whose chewy coming-of-age debut Raw (2016) and its high-octane follow-up Titane (2021) would have been a shoo-in for a classic body-horror double bill.

It’s worth noting that there is one major difference between the era that the Scala operated in and the present day: the renaissance in documentaries. The cinema showed very few docs, but documentary-making has come into its own in recent decades and one can well imagine Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005) doubled-billed with Elizabeth Banks’s Cocaine Bear, or Laura Poitras’s All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (2022) showing with Bette Gordon’s Variety (1983).

Of course, one name above all has been conspicuously absent so far. It feels symbolic that Reservoir Dogs (1992) screened at the cinema not long before it closed its doors forever. The prelapsarian, curiously innocent Scala didn’t live to witness the rise of ‘Indiewood’ or the commodification of ‘cult’, or accommodate a new breed of filmmakers with access to increasingly affordable digital technology and a myriad of alternative distribution channels and platforms.

Over the decade that followed its closure, the mainstream would soon become used to knocking back liberal measures of the bad-taste, the ironic – and, yes, generous shots of that ol’ Scala spirit. Quentin Tarantino and other gunslingers would take what the Scala had unselfconsciously provided and repackage it with postmodern ribbons and bows. Vintage threads on new coat hangers. Counterculture, coiffed.

By June 1993, the cinema was shot full of arrows like Sebastiane, beset by the court case, which was lost, and a rapidly expiring lease. But, like Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), the Scala and its immortal, indomitable spirit didn’t so much fade away as get subsumed, at a subatomic level, into the cinematic universe. The legacy of the ultimate outsiders’ cinema is all around us: it just took the rest of the world a while to catch up.

— Ali Catterall

30 films the Scala never got to screen

Sissy Boy Slap Party (2004)

1. Sissy-boy Slap Party

Guy Maddin, 1994 (remade in 2004)

Guy Maddin’s flagellation fantasia is a tight, hot package too dangerous to display in public – this orgy of beautiful boys using one another’s bare buttocks as bongos is so exhilarating that any participatory red-cheeked revelry could erupt into a thwack-happy riot in the aisles. Dreamy homoeroticism, wild action, quotable dialogue: you’d only need to re-open the Scala for six short minutes to bring back everything that made it great.

David Cox, programmer

2. A Gun for Jennifer (Todd Morris, 1997)

With its mixture of explicit gore, social commentary and punk aesthetics, A Gun for Jennifer would have been destined for Scala audiences. Its vendetta narrative focuses on a group of women vigilantes who stalk New York’s sexual predators. The film was based on co-writer/producer Deborah Twiss’s experiences of working as a stripper to fund her acting career.

Xavier Mendik, academic; director, That’s La Morte

3. The works of Bertrand Mandico (1998-)

What I know of the Scala is the image of a cinema with a deviant soul that gave pride of place to midnight movies, queer cinema, the fringe, the avant garde, genres and ill-bred films. So when I’m asked to imagine which films could have been screened there, I reply egocentrically: my films. Boro in the Box (2011), Living Still Life (2012) and Apocalypse After (2018) in a special programme for a night of exhilaration. Then I would show my first feature The Wild Boys (2017), which I think would have been right at home at the Scala.

Bertrand Mandico, director, She Is Conann

Velvet Goldmine (1998)

4. Velvet Goldmine (Todd Haynes, 1998)

I’d programme Velvet Goldmine alongside original music films such as Born to Boogie (Ringo Starr, 1972), Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (D.A. Pennebaker, 1973) and Blank Generation (Ulli Lommel, 1980), which cover that glam-into-punk era. The Scala got to show Todd Haynes’s short film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) at a time when it was illegal to do so, as well as his first feature, Poison (1991), based on Jean Genet’s stories; it would definitely have continued to follow his filmmaking.

Stephen Woolley, producer, Living; former owner, Scala cinema

5. Beau travail (Claire Denis, 1999)

Beau travail certainly would have played. A woman filmmaker looking with her camera at a group of male legionnaires in the middle of an exercise that feels more meditative than military. The blue water, the sun, the men naked from the waist up, the camera moving over their bodies. Denis was the first filmmaker to film men like this. Capturing bodies on film, their physicality, intimacy, close-ups with long lenses. She pushes visual language in a way that I adore.

Bette Gordon, director, Variety

6. The War Zone (Tim Roth, 1999)

I watched this by mistake aged 15. Perhaps no film has cut through me with such brutality as this cruel tale of family secrets; it will stay with me for infinity. The performances are told with such innocence, which makes it all the more horrifying that true horror and human extremity lie in the family and the mundane.

Luna Carmoon, director, Hoard

Wild Zero (1999)

7. Wild Zero (Takeuchi Tetsuro, 1999)

I moved to London the year after the Scala closed, so it’s with regret that I never had the chance to experience this beautiful trash palace. Nevertheless, based on all I’ve learned about this legendary venue, the 1999 Japanese rock zombie film Wild Zero seems like a perfect fit. In this raucous B movie, real-life band Guitar Wolf, renowned for their ear-splittingly loud performances, take on the crucial role of defending earth against both an extraterrestrial threat and an army of zombies. Mass slaughter set to a deafening psychobilly score – what more could you want from a 2am showing?

Edgar Wright, director, Last Night in Soho

8. Baise-moi (Virginie Despentes & Coralie Trinh Tri, 2000)

Raw, angry and ugly, Baise-moi is about what it really means to not be a victim. Written and co-directed by the femme terrible of French literature Virginie Despentes, it follows the sex-and-murder road trip of two disaffected women on the run. Fuelled by a desperate punk energy, it is an essential shock to the system.

Virginie Sélavy, critic and scholar

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

9. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)

The film I choose is Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It’s directed and written by John Cameron Mitchell, who stars as a genderqueer punk rock singer from East Berlin touring the US with her band after undergoing a botched gender-reassignment surgery. Her life story is equally tragic and hilarious and comes with killer songs. A cult classic alt-musical.

Mark Moore, music producer and DJ

10. 24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002)

For many, Manchester’s Factory is synonymous with Tony Wilson, the Scala with Stephen Woolley. Audrey Golden’s recent book I Thought I Heard You Speak: Women at Factory Records shows how much of the key work at the Factory’s Haçienda nightclub was done by women, just as Jane Giles and Ali Catterall’s film highlights the young women responsible for programming at the Scala. Both their movie and Winterbottom’s are gleeful tragicomedies about enthusiasm, barely controlled chaos, post-punk kinetics, light and noise, discordant bodies, bolshy Brits, avant-populism, the politics and possibilities of space – the other 1980s. Whether or not you actually went to either place, both make you feel intensely (productively?) nostalgic.

Sukhdev Sandhu, critic

Rubber Johnny (2005)

11. Rubber Johnny (Chris Cunningham, 2005)

A short film that cries out to be part of this line-up. It might seem an obvious choice, but imagine if the Scala had screened this six-minute masterpiece on its release. Some unfortunate punter would have stumbled in from a night out as they tried to shake off an unwanted acid trip. The look of horror on their face when little Johnny appears on the big screen would have been priceless. His contorted, bony body straddling a wheelchair, his abnormally large head slumped to one side. The eerie chimes of Aphex Twin droning as the night-vision camera illuminates this groundbreaking imagery in all its disgusting, humorous glory. Maybe no one would get away with it today. I have never had the chance to see it on the big screen. But I’m sure it would be a great watch in a packed cinema. Especially sitting next to the bloke tripping.

Leo Leigh, director, Sweet Sue

12. Evil Aliens (Jake West, 2005)

As an avid cinemagoer at the Scala, which midwifed my alternative film education, I’m going to nominate my own film, splatter horror/comedy Evil Aliens, exactly the kind of movie that would have found an adoring audience there. It played many festivals… but in particular, it was picked for Midnight Madness in Toronto, which has very few programming slots. That audience is the Scala audience! Fifteen-hundred people loved my batshit-crazy flick, which was birthed at the altar of the Scala. It’s my love letter to wild cinema. For its UK release, critics sure weren’t as enthusiastic as the audiences! But who do we really care about?

Jake West, director, Mancunian Man: The Legendary Life of Cliff Twemlow

13. The Wayward Cloud (Tsai Mingliang, 2005) + Destricted (Various directors, 2006)

The Scala audience was as special as the programme, constantly subverting and appropriating what would now be called the ‘heteronormative’. It particularly relished the perverse (Russ Meyer; Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, 1985), so I nominate Tsai Mingliang’s ode to the watermelon, The Wayward Cloud – perhaps in a double bill with the sex-positive anthology of artists’ films, Destricted, to remind us of cinema’s key interest in representations of the body.

Richard Kwietniowski, teacher; director, Love and Death on Long Island

Amer (2009)

14. Amer (Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, 2009)

A feverishly modernist take on giallo cinema, with any extraneous exposition or narrative foundation amounting only to mere residue in a heightened distillation of the anxiety, desire and nightmare logic that is hardwired into the genre. Amer conjures what I imagine I would’ve succumbed to if I had been to an Argento all-nighter at the Scala and fallen asleep there.

Peter Strickland, director, Flux Gourmet

15. Enter the Void (Gaspar Noé, 2009)

I stand (almost) alone in adoring everything about this thrilling film, particularly the director’s cut. The opening credit sequence with its stunning montage of graphic styles, the theme of the dead observing the living, its explicit and extreme images, the darkness and hallucinations. The Scala has its own Void, a secret place above the very top of the building, and this film would’ve resonated with the very soul of the cinema even when there were only three people in its cavernous auditorium, the programmer being one of them.

Jane Giles, writer; former Scala cinema programmer

16. Enthiran (S. Shankar, 2010) + The Mermaid (Stephen Chow, 2016)

Given that it’s the Scala, it has to be a double bill. Both films display a bonkers-level imagination when it comes to action set pieces that make Hollywood action films seem pedestrian. Enthiran was the most expensive Indian film ever made, while The Mermaid was China’s highest-grossing film at the time. Yet in spite of all the dollars, both feel like Scala-worthy B movies that satisfy in the way only trash can. Wonderful.

Kirk Hendry, director, Kensuke’s Kingdom

The Act of Killing (2012)

17. The Act of Killing: Director’s Cut (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)

Maybe as a sing-along…

James Marsh, director, Dance First

18. The Man Whose Mind Exploded (Toby Amies, 2012)

Gloriously Scala-esque, The Man Whose Mind Exploded gleefully throws away the supposed rules of documentary filmmaking and leans into its subject closely and compassionately. The relationship between director Toby Amies and subject Drako Oho Zarhazar is an important meditation on love and loss, reminding us of the importance of a life well-lived. Perhaps we should all embrace Drako’s elegant philosophy – “trust, absolute, unconditional”. Oh, how we wish we could have watched it from the holy pews of the Scala.

Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard, directors, 20,000 Days on Earth

19. Objects Attack! (Rona Mark, 2013)

If made in 1984, Rona Mark’s oddity Objects Attack! might have been a Scala staple. Narrator-heroine Lovey Chambers (Meritt Latimore) searches for her missing boyfriend while being persecuted by malign inanimate objects – including a car driven by a pair of white gloves. Its air of no-budget invention evokes early John Waters, and there’s a terrific surf/lounge rock score from the Flooz.

Kim Newman, writer and critic

Under the Skin (2013)

20. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)

This film haunts you with its unnerving brilliance. It lures you into a supposed narrative pattern and then takes you to a place you would never expect. It hosts unique uses of sound, score and colour. A searing feature that takes on modern themes of power, sexuality and consent; it’s a film which I believe would be more than at home on a bill at the Scala.

Conrad Khan, actor

21. Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich, 2013) + Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (David Gregory, 2014)

A mesmerising doc about a film that never was but whose visionary ideas would infect Hollywood like a cosmic virus. A trickster-shaman, Jodorowsky was one of the Scala’s spiritual grandees and this story of how outsider art can metastasise into strange and wonderful creations, from Star Wars (1977) to Alien (1979) and Flash Gordon (1980), would have found the perfect home. Double-bill it with David Gregory’s hugely entertaining film. Hell, while we’re here, triple-bill it with another little documentary called Scala!!!…

Ali Catterall, co-director, Scala!!!

22. The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, 2014)

The Scala was an education in all sorts of cinema and an inspiration to try to make it. When I first met Peter we talked about doing a remake of Jesús Franco’s Lorna the Exorcist (1974). Peter, quite rightly, thought that a bad idea and came back with Duke but I’ve always thought of the film as being something like The Truman Show (1998), where the protagonist is ‘trapped’ in a Franco theme park… how I felt at some of the all-nighters at the Scala. I’d still very happily buy a ticket for that theme park now.

Andy Starke, producer, Scala!!!

Hardkor Disko (2014)

23. Hardkor Disko (Krzysztof Skonieczny, 2014)

From its decidedly Scala-esque title to its arthouse-meets-grindhouse premise (essentially, Pasolini’s Theorem, 1968, but with the equivalent of Terence Stamp’s mysterious stranger bent on murderous revenge instead of quasi-divine intervention), Hardkor Disko, Krzysztof Skonieczny’s only feature to date, would have fitted the Scala schedule like a giallo killer’s black leather glove.

Michael Brooke, critic

24. We Are the Flesh (Emiliano Rocha Minter, 2016) + Bad Boy Bubby (Rolf de Heer, 1993)

We Are the Flesh is a film that will turn your brain into messy, visceral scrambled egg; it’s a perverse and demented descent into madness that transforms into a fleshy hell. I was torn between this and Bad Boy Bubby – so maybe a double bill for a truly extraordinary cinema experience that will mess with our minds.

Prano Bailey-Bond, director, Censor

25. The Ghost of Peter Sellers (Peter Medak, 2018)

The Scala was a place to revel in the best and worst of cinema, democratically displayed. So, as an unapologetic aficionado of films great and awful, I’d show Peter Medak’s excellent doc examining his own appalling Ghost in the Noonday Sun (1974), a self-indulgent Goon grotesquerie that starred Spike Milligan as Bill Bombay up against Peter Sellers’s nattily named Dick Scratcher.

Vic Pratt, writer and curator

Mandy (2018)

26. Mandy (Panos Cosmatos, 2018)

Mandy has a number of ingredients that could have seen it appear on the Scala menu: graphic violence, full-frontal male nudity, a plucky female heroine (Andrea Riseborough)
a tremendous Jóhann Jóhannson score to make the floorboards rumble and a performance by Nicolas Cage that channels his inner Bruce Campbell. It begins with a pastoral shot set to a track by King Crimson, but very soon you know there will be blood. The midnight Scala crowd would have gone apeshit crazy. And rightly so.

Jason Wood Executive director of public programmes and audiences, BFI

27. Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (J.-P. Valkeapää, 2019)

A film so perfectly Scala: hard to watch, but impossible to forget. A hardcore BDSM movie with a tender love story at its heart, and a final scene that could have been shot at a Scala all-nighter. The most joyful celebration of life emerging again after grief you’ll ever see, set to an incredible soundtrack.

Caroline Catz, actor; director, Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes

Butt Boy (2020)

28. Butt Boy (Tyler Cornack, 2020)

The entire last third of the movie takes place up inside the title character’s rectum. It’s a regular laff riot!!

John Waters, director, Pink Flamingos

29. King Rocker (Michael Cumming, 2020)

I’ve made one film, King Rocker, with Michael Cumming, who directed Brass Eye (1997) on television. It’s an anti-rockumentary about the singer Robert Lloyd which weaves the story of Birmingham’s undervalued underdog autodidact into that of the city’s forgotten public sculpture of King Kong, eschewing the celebrity interview and archive-raid approach for a free-associating bricolage of Indian food, bewildered chefs, vegetable gardening, prescription medicines, pop stardom and pop art. I’d like to think it would be the sort of thing that could’ve played at the Scala because that would mean more to me than it being on BBC4.

Stewart Lee, comedian and writer; screenwriter, King Rocker

30. Rotting in the Sun (Sebastián Silva, 2023)

Silva’s energetic 2023 film Rotting in the Sun would’ve been the perfect film to show at the Scala. It’s laced with both misanthropic and flamboyant characters laying the foundations on which the most nonsensical scenarios comically make sense. Packed with charmingly unwarranted nudity and gratuitous drug use, scattered with short and erratic online videos, it’s a would-be a 21st-century Scala fever dream.

Daniella Alconaba, critic

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