Tuesday, May 14, 2024

SIFF ’24: Scala!!!

When John Waters shows up in a documentary about a theater, you know some crazy films must have screened there. They programmed his movies, which definitely qualify. The theater was also known for showing horror, martial arts, art films, and sexploitation bordering on outright raunch. Of course, for regulars, its seediness was part of its charm. Staff, customers, and famous filmmakers remember the good times in Jane Giles &Ali Catterall’s documentary, Scala!!!, which screens again during the 2024 Seattle International Film Festival.

The Beatles filmed one of the concert scenes for
A Hard Day’s Night in the old Scala Theater. This is “new” Scala, but it has an apostolic link to the old theater, after the original location was demolished. Changing formats a few times, it eventually became the eccentric repertory cinema fans knew and loved, around the time it finally settled into its beloved sketchy King’s Cross neighborhood. Frankly, many talking heads make enthusiastic comparisons to grindhouse era Times Square, especially after the Scala started its tradition of all-night marathon screenings.

The programming was certainly eclectic, including high-end art-house films and sleazy exploitation fare. Of course, budding auteurs like Christiopher Nolan were regular patrons. Touring punk bands often crashed there, instead of renting hotel rooms. A lot of drugs were consumed on the premises and the restrooms were a veritable petri dishes overflowing with STDs. At least two people died there—that the staff are willing to cop to. So yeah, good times.

Admittedly, the wild anecdotes are often amusing. The Scala also screened some great stuff, including
Avengers episodes for the series’ fan society, as well as glorified porn. Just about all the talking heads agree the most representative Scala film would be Thundercrack!, a haunted house spoof with X-rated sex scenes, written by George Kuchar.

Unfortunately, Giles and Catterall kill the good vibes in the final twenty minutes, when they really lean into the Scala’s political affiliations. It is pretty clear a lot of horror and kung fu fans would not have felt welcome in this self-described “inclusive” establishment, due to their political and religious convictions. After listening to them vilify Lady Thatcher, who helped liberate the captive Eastern European nations from their oppressive Soviet occupiers, it is hard to feel much regret for the theater’s demise.

Of course, it is still fun hearing Waters reminisce about some of the most intense
Pink Flamingos screenings he ever attended. It seems like it has been a while since he popped up in a cult film documentary, so it is nice to see him again. Frankly, the film should have maintained the wickedly fun spirit he represents, instead of trying to score cheap political points. The first hour or so is entertaining if you can later find Scala!!! on a free streamer, but its stridency gets tiresome. Not recommended in theaters, Scala!!! screens again this Thursday (5/16) as part of SIFF.