I ran naked through the night, bare foot over the African veldt, a bucket clutched to my chest. Inside the bucket was approximately a pound of marijuana and VHS copies of Lucio Fulci’s “HOUSE BY THE CEMETARY” (1981), “CUT AND RUN” (1985), “ATLANTIS INTERCEPTORS” (1983), “ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW” (1975) and George A. Romero’s “DAWN OF THE DEAD” (1978.) From somewhere behind me came the crackle of walkie talkies and a flicker of flashlight beams.
It was the summer of 1984 in Orwellian apartheid era South Africa, o my sisters and brothers and I was running for my life. Few folk in the outside world know that in the declining years of the fascist Afrikaner regime’s rule the besieged and sanction-beset republic was subject to draconian and quixotic domestic censorship legislation, dictated by the warped morality of the Dutch Reformed Church. Strangely enough, politically themed anti-apartheid movies like “CRY FREEDOM” (1987), “A WORLD APART” (1988) and “A DRY WHITE SEASON” (1989) were released uncensored to the mainstream multiplexes whereas the religiously driven censors turned their ire on anything they thought might put the devil or what they considered to be black magic in a positive light. “THE EXORCIST” (1973) was banned and the OMEN movies were only released with massive cuts that deleted their closing scenes in a vain attempt to imply that Damien hadn’t really won after all. The first time I saw Hammer’s “FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL” (1974) at a midnight show at my local flea pit someone had laboriously gone over the print with a felt tip marker and hand colored out the ‘FROM HELL’ bit from every frame – the net effect being the onscreen title now read ‘FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER’ followed by a weird, jiggling psychedelic smudge.
Sex was basically illegal in the old Republic and pornography non-existent. Films were carefully shorn of any trace of nudity leaving those that did make it into distribution such as “CAT PEOPLE” (1982) and “QUEST FOR FIRE” (1981) jumbled and confused, running at a fraction of their original length. PLAYBOY and HEAVY METAL magazine never made it across the borders and men’s magazines of the period were filled with articles on cars, guns and other consumer durables. Adult content never got any racier than occasional lingerie images with sexuality replaced time and again by violence: the traditional centrefold substituted for images of dead terrorists or mangled car accident victims. No wonder then that the nation effortlessly managed to rear a generation of child abusers and psychopaths. Hard as it may be to believe, Romero’s “DAWN OF THE DEAD”, David Cronenburg’s “SCANNERS” (1981), Joe Dante’s “THE HOWLING” (1981), the FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH flicks and a whole bunch of lesser titles such as “MONSTER” (aka “HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP” – 1980) were banned outright. People actually went to jail for owning copies of “THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW”.
So there I was, running through the dark, clutching a copy of that very video cassette amongst my contraband, fleeing pell-mell from the forces of Big Brother. I wasn’t much older than sixteen years at the time but it was a dangerous age because it meant I was eligible for conscription or an adult jail term. The authorities had marked me from an early age on account of my unfashionably long hair and penchant for abrasive anti-establishment T-shirts. Worst of all I carried a camera and had been shooting my own deeply weird home movies for some years. Like most kids of my generation I started on super 8, mucking about with stop motion dinosaurs before graduating to live action, persuading my friends to dress up as cave men, aliens, mutants and various other refugees from fictional future conflicts, the end of the world being a pet obsession.
By the time I was fifteen I had managed to get myself my first paying gig, a job for the South African College of Music, who equipped me with one of those huge old fashioned video cameras, powered by a bulky battery kit worn on my belt, with an eye towards documenting tribal dance and music for their archives. This meant that I all too often spent my weekends hanging out on what the apartheid authorities considered to be the “wrong side” of town, chasing down initiation rituals and illegal public gatherings in order to document the traditional music and dance that accompanied them. In the course of my “field work” I covered political protests along with circumcision ceremonies, children sniffing methylated spirits, demonic possession and tribal magic, all of which fell within the broad remit of “social anthropology.”
In their extraordinary arrogance, the apartheid regime’s censorship laws only applied to the white population, as if the rest of the country somehow didn’t matter. Accordingly titles that were considered too cheap or just plain scuzzy for mainstream release went direct to video, bypassing gated white bourgeois suburbia to surface in dusty racks and cardboard boxes at the back of the Portuguese or Greek-owned trading stores that catered to the townships. Battered VHS copies of Japanese kung fu epics, peplum, keiju eiga, spaghetti westerns and other titles that seemed at times to coast right under the censor’s radar, hence that uncut copy of Fulci’s “HOUSE BY THE CEMETARY” that I clutched to my teenage chest as I fled through the night. It was to be a great many years until I saw the film again in such a mercifully intact state. Those ratty larger than life VHS boxes were, for me, a vital lifeline to the outside world, a sign that beyond the electrified fence that the Dutch Reformed Church elders had tried to erect around South African culture there were other folk who shared and cherished my warped sensibilities. At the time I firmly subscribed to Roger Corman’s definition of what constituted good entertainment – namely a healthy serving of action, a decent car crash or helicopter explosion, some breast nudity and a slight social comment. I have no doubt that my taste for junk movies, along with their kissing cousins, the American underground comic books of the Seventies and early Eighties, formed my fledgling notions of morality, of what I believed to be right and wrong, honest and true. In short they made me into what you might call a “liberal.” My politicization surely didn’t come from my parents and teachers, nor from the state approved television programming on the old republic’s one bilingual channel. I was the only one of my high school class to prematurely develop any vestige of a “social conscience” or to ultimately resist conscription into the apartheid regime’s standing army, then involved in bloody military action in Angola and the other so-called “front line states.” Both my sisters happily joined up and eventually married army brass. To this day they believe I betrayed both my family and my country by refusing to take up arms against the indigenous people and communist backed liberation movements such as SWAPO and the ANC (the South West African People’s Organization and the African National Congress.) As I grew older I was clearly identified by the regime as a potential trouble maker. I was frequently flagged down for no discernible reason, interrogated or made to report to the local police station and fill out endless questionnaires. My record for this sort of harassment was seven such “arrests” in a single day as I attempted to shoot a simple scene involving a three eyed mutation nursing a wounded soldier in a mocked up 21st Century field hospital. I was literally just finishing up dealing with one set of cops and be about to get back to work when another would arrive and the whole rigmarole would start all over again. The police simply didn’t understand what I was doing and instinctively wanted to stop me from shooting, even if I wasn’t committing any recognizable crime.
My amateur efforts at movie making were crimes against reality, at least their definition of “reality,” and accordingly their efforts to close me down grew more frantic as my work grew more accomplished and mature. Determined to catch me breaking some sort of law, they would repeatedly check the treads on my tyres or measure their distance from the painted lines on the pavement to make certain I was properly parked. They would check my license and insurance discs over and over or grab my hands and sniff at my fingertips like dogs in the hope of finding some trace of marijuana smoke. The lack of tangible evidence clearly enraged them and I knew in my heart it was only a matter of time until they found some way of getting me where they wanted me, namely in the back of a concrete holding pen at the local police station, where the sound of the trains in the shunting yard beyond covered up the sound of the screams. I had been in those pens once before, as a thirteen year old, and knew all too well what it was like.
By the time I turned sixteen they had started to make house calls. I was just clambering into bed after a marathon late night viewing session with a couple of friends when I heard the crackle of a two way radio outside my bedroom window and knew at once there was going to be a bust. My buddies were already asleep in another room and there was simply no time to wake them, nor was there any time to put on my shoes or get dressed. I made a headlong lunge for the bucket of dope resting on the lounge table, pausing only to sweep up the offending videotapes that still lay scattered beside my television set. I didn’t even know if “ATLANTIS INTERCEPTORS” and “CUT AND RUN” were banned or not but wasn’t taking any chances. Then, without further ado, I plunged straight out the back door into the night. That’s one of the many good things about Africa. It was real African night out there, the kind that comes without street lamps. My house was the last one on the street. Beyond it lay a dry ravine and open mountainside stretching as far as the local game reserve; moreover it was home turf and I knew the terrain, even barefoot and by night, a whole lot better than the local cops ever did. I knew when to move, but I also knew when to stay put which can be vital when you’re being chased through the dark. I ended up climbing a tree only a few hundred yards from the back of the house and improvising a hide from the canopy of overhanging leaves. Pressing myself as close to the trunk as possible with my contraband wedged between my thighs, I waited as the first wave of flashlight-wielding cops passed below. People seldom bother to look up, especially at night, their attention concentrated on the flashlight beam and the path ahead. Then I waited a while as the mountainside fell silent. And waited some more. After about half an hour I heard the voice of one of my buddies whom I had left sleeping back at the house calling after me.
“Rich-ard! It’s okay! You can come out now. They’ve gone…”
But the crackle of a walkie talkie told otherwise. I held my breath as the cops made a second pass, using my friend for bait in the hope of luring me out. I stayed put, perched in that tree until dawn when I finally tiptoed home, cautiously circling the house first to make certain I didn’t still have company. It had been a close call. Too damn close for my liking. I knew that sooner or later my luck was going to run out and I decided to make myself scarce before that happened. A couple of weeks later, shortly after receiving my induction papers in the mail, I slipped across the border into Namibia, then a South African mandate, and caught a plane to Frankfurt, working my way down the Rhine to Rotterdam and hence to the United Kingdom where I sought asylum as a South African war resister.
I sought out the address of a cousin in north London, my sole relative in that labyrinthine city but failed to get my ass through the front door. The face of my sole blood relative appeared at one of the terrace house’s upper windows and informed me that he was kind of busy just then. He suggested I should call back in a week or two and maybe we could meet for lunch. In fact I didn’t see or hear of him again for a good five years. Alone and footloose in north London, with little more to my name than the clothes I wore and a pair of boots already past their sell-by date, I purchased a ticket to an all night movie show, hoping to catch a few winks before rethinking my options. At two pounds and fifty pence the all-nighter was a viable alternative to seeking out a hostel or a bed and breakfast.
The Scala cinema in King’s Cross was a former ape house, London’s first and only “Primatarium,” its flaking walls lined with crawling jungle murals. The sort of thing Rousseau might have produced if you’d dosed him with Black Pentagram LSD. The murals were painted over in the early Nineties when the cinema’s fortunes went into decline, but when last I looked there were still deserted cages in the basement and if you inhaled deeply enough you could catch the faint hint of musk and dried urine mingled with marijuana smoke and stale popcorn, a reassuring safari smell that connects to my earliest memories. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, when I purchased my ticket to that first all-nighter, I was arriving at a pivotal moment in the Scala Cinema’s illustrious history. The bankrupt ape house had been converted into a movie theatre in 1981 by its initial programmer, the young Stephen Woolley and his partner, Nik Powell, who had been one of the prime movers in the foundation of Richard Branson’s Virgin empire. Together, the two young entrepreneurs had set about using the crumbling venue as a platform for the launch of a profitable independent distribution company known as Palace Pictures.
Several inspired choices in acquiring British distribution rights helped to bankroll Palace’s eventual move into production, notably Jean-Jacques Beneix’s “DIVA: (1982) and a hyper-kinetic ultra-low budget American horror film entitled “THE EVIL DEAD” (1983), directed by the 21 year old Sam Raimi. Despite unease at the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC), one of whom complained that her “bodily integrity” had been threatened by the film, it was passed (albeit with cuts) and Palace released it theatrically and simultaneously direct to video in order to make the most out of their meagre promotional budget, a decision that effectively changed the British film industry – which at that time was still terrified of the home video revolution. Nor were the film industry’s old guard the only ones to be outraged. Late in 1983 the moral crusader Mary Whitehouse screened clips from “THE EVIL DEAD” and a number of other so-called “video nasties” to a large number of MPs at the House of Commons, as a highly effective means of lobbying the Thatcher government to introduce tighter state controls on the burgeoning home video industry. Hysterical press coverage in the Sun and Daily Mail, wildly exaggerating the potential effects of violent videotape on the nation’s youth, helped create a climate in which the government felt obliged to take action, partly to appease traditional Tory voters but also to deflect attention from the more deep rooted social, economic and environmental factors underlying the rising crime statistics which were then embarrassing the traditional “law and order” party.
Empowered by the Director of Public Prosecutions’ willingness to use the Obscene Publications Act against violent (as opposed to simply pornographic) material, the British police began a series of raids on video retailers, eating their way steadily back up the supply lines to distributors such as Palace and their headquarters above the Scala Cinema. Acting on a last minute tip off, Irving Rappaport, the manager of Palace’s marketing and home video distribution, had the master copy of “THE EVIL DEAD” removed from the premises and hidden in a local church. Enraged when they came up empty handed during their initial raid on the Scala, the forces of law and order then descended on the main warehouse, confiscating every copy they could find of the film as prima facie evidence when it came to asking the Director of Public Prosecutions to prepare a case against the company. After Sam Raimi, Nik Powell and several others testified at Snaresbrook Crown Court a verdict of not guilty was returned on 7 November 1983. It was a resounding triumph. Indeed the judge sternly criticized both the Public Prosecutor and the police for having brought such a frivolous case to begin with, a ruling that effectively took the wind out of the pro-censorship lobbies sales, giving “THE EVIL DEAD” all the free publicity it needed to become an enormous runaway success. Rapidly rising to the top of the home video charts, “EVIL DEAD” broke all previous records and put Palace Pictures squarely onto the map.
By the time I stumbled onto the scene Palace had already launched into production with their first feature film, Neil Jordan’s dark faery tale “THE COMPANY OF WOLVES” (1984.) In those days the cinema was managed by a feisty young redhead named JoAnne Sellar who had previously worked the house as an usherette, trolling the sepulchral cat haunted aisles in her “China Blue” wig and scraping gum off the seats between shows. With the cinema’s parent company booming I stumbled onto the scene just as JoAnne’s programming scaled new heights, which was how on my very first visit to the Scala I came to see all of writer/director Dario Argento’s major works for the first time in chronological order in a single, mind wrenching sitting. I’d been too busy dealing with apartheid to be fully aware just yet of the struggle for the heart and soul of the nation that had been going on behind the scenes in the UK but I revelled in the creative freedom on display. It was all so much brighter, bigger, louder, more violent and infinitely more seductive than anything the moral guardians would have allowed to pass in the Dutch Reformed police state I had left behind. By the time I emerged, still sleepless, into the mid-Eighties dawn; I knew I had been changed in various complicated ways I couldn’t immediately comprehend.
In the months and years to come the Scala would become my sanctuary, my alma mater, a house of dreams redolent of an opium den with its haze of psychoactive smoke and its delirious, half-glimpsed denizens. I would camp with my bed roll on the front tiers of the red lit, cat haunted auditorium as a relentless progression of imagery flowed past and over me. Sometimes I would open my eyes at three in the morning and have no way of knowing if I was dreaming or not and as I slowly learned about the art of light, so the Scala brought me into contact with some of the auteurs who had helped create this formidable body of work. If I didn’t exactly grow up in the ape house then I certainly came of age there. I found employment, initially as a delivery boy, kitchen porter and short order cook to finance my movie habit and began to experiment with Super 8 and 16mm once again, my early efforts, not to mention my penchant for staging well-orchestrated guerrilla shoots, leading to music video work. By the late Eighties the video work became sufficiently lucrative for me to be able to give up the day job once and for all.
Spurred on by the success of “THE EVIL DEAD” and Clive Barker’s “HELLRAISER” (1987), Steve Woolley was determined to come up with his own horror hit,. To this end he optioned my first professional screenplay, “HARDWARE” (1990), a cyberpunk fantasy with strong lashings of gore, a project that grew organically out of the music video and album cover work I’d been turning out for the nascent goth scene. “HARDWARE”, a fusion of so many of the influences that had acted on me up to that point, was produced by the Scala’s former programmer, Jo-Anne Sellar. As much as anything Hardware was a love letter to the Scala, lit and designed to extend the auditorium into the screen, with some beats in the lunatic dialogue left deliberately open, begging bellowed comebacks from the aisles (Sorry kids, but the experience just ain’t the same at “home” and never could be. You need bad plumbing, genuine rats, resident psychos and hundreds of other psychotic people you’ve never even seen before to get the hang of it. It was my version of “home” viewing so long as the Scala lasted.)
Although ‘HARDWARE’ was inevitably softened by its US distributor, Miramax, the completed feature was still strong enough to be handed down an X rating in the States, a classification that effectively prevented us from getting the film into cinemas without further cuts. In keeping with tradition, Jo-Anne and I toured the US, hitting the daytime chat show circuit, aggressively campaigning for reform in the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)’s rating system and generally doing our best to get up the establishment’s collective nose. Harvey and Bob Weinstein, Miramax’s legendary CEOs, having ridden out similar controversies on ‘THE BURNING’ (1981) and other productions, actively encouraged us, hoping to reproduce Steve Woolley’s strategy on “THE EVIL DEAD”. They had several other films in the distribution pipeline at that stage that had all been tarred with the same ‘X-rated’ brush, notably Peter Greenaway’s “THE COOK,THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER” (1989), Pedro Almodovar’s “TIE ME UP. TIE ME DOWN” (1989) and Wayne Wang’s “LIFE IS CHEAP. TOILET PAPER IS EXPENSIVE” (1989). That campaign lead directly to the introduction of the R rating in the United States of America and my first feature film, “HARDWARE”, that I had initially imagined would go direct to video, ended up opening wide in a seven hundred print release. The mainstream press hated us. Stephen King stormed out of the advance screening claiming “the pointless strobe lighting” had given him a headache, but Joe Bob Briggs gave “HARDWARE” a big thumbs up and Fangoria Magazine declared it the “sci-fi horror movie of the year.” Although I didn’t know it yet I was at the very crest of my fifteen minutes of dubious fame. Back in the UK something had started to go horribly wrong with the repertory cinema scene, like milk left too long in the back of a fridge. It was the advent of home video (ironically spearheaded by the runaway success of “THE EVIL DEAD”) that killed midnight movies as a social phenomena, depriving what people now call “cult movies” of their context and the fertile soil that nurtured them, but I was having too much fun to notice at the time.
“HARDWARE” premiered at Cannes to glowing notices and the Scala crew and I partied the night away on the decks of a Russian research vessel anchored offshore between Polanski’s galleon from “PIRATES” (1986) and an American aircraft carrier. Abandoning ship just before dawn I tried to go for a spin in a power boat with one of the producers of “HELLRAISER” and two young actresses from “LETTER TO BREZNHEV” (1985), only to run out of gas and find ourselves floating slowly but steadily out to sea. The 1980s were over, the Berlin wall had come down and the wave we’d been riding was about to dry up. Although never quite the runaway hit Steve had wanted, “HARDWARE” still performed extraordinarily well for a film made for well under a million pounds, grossing enough to keep Palace afloat through a particularly lean season with one disaster coming after another, the year of David Leland’s “THE BIG MAN,” Neil Jordan’s “THE MIRACLE,” “THE POPE MUST DIE” and not one but two friggin’ Lenny Henry comedies.
My second feature, “DUST DEVIL”, had been put into production in the rush of euphoria that followed “HARDWARE’s” initial box office, but by the time we reached post-production the writing was already on the wall for British independent cinema. Palace Pictures was experiencing grave cash flow problems that exerted a heavy toll on the production, and although Nik Powell and Steve Woolley continued to choose their projects wisely with “THE PLAYER” (1992), “RESERVOIR DOGS” (1992) and “HOWARD’S END” (1991) awaiting release, they found themselves hard hit by the recession and forced against the wall by the new corporate culture that was steadily taking control of the industry. When Polygram reneged on a deal to buy the group outright Palace were left with little choice other than to file for administration, winding up the company in May 1992 and leaving debts outstanding all over Soho. Polygram promptly took over their back catalogue, including “HARDWARE” and my second film “DUST DEVIL,” which remained incomplete, trapped in the distribution pipeline. I never saw my director’s fee for the production and was forced to pour my remaining funds into its completion, bringing myself to the verge of bankruptcy trying to finish the cut while fleeing the bailiffs from one safe house to another. By the winter of ’92, I was back on the street and after a grim night in a bus shelter in South London, the Scala’s new programmer, Jane Giles, allowed me to take refuge in a room above the ticket office.
The Scala had developed some major problems of its own by then. The building’s lease had expired and the unscrupulous landlord was doing his best to force out the cinema and the freaks that ran it. The expanding home video market had eaten into the Scala’s attendance, reducing the audience to a trickle, none of which was helped by the programming growing a little stale given the absence of new product or the necessary revenue to procure prints from abroad. The all-day-all-nighters had simply dried up as people preferred to abuse themselves in the privacy of their own homes and the auditorium had fallen into increasing disrepair. As King’s Cross slid into decline the surrounding streets began to grow so crime-ridden few people wanted to risk getting beaten up just to catch a few scratchy old Italian horror flicks that everyone had seen a million times before. At first we believed the advent of home video would bring about a revolution in mass communication, an age of wider public access and unprecedented freedom but in the end it was a flickering CCTV image that really brought the house down. The ultimate British horror film turned out to be a simple thing. One static wide angle and just one location – a shopping centre on the outskirts of Liverpool – and a cast of three, their backs turned towards camera: two children leading a toddler by the hand like friendly older brothers, the crowd flowing by oblivious, extras in an unwitting drama.
It was February 1994 and two-year old James Bulger had been abducted by two older boys from outside a butcher’s store in Bootle. The rest of this simple, awful story is too well known to need retelling but the key point, in this context, is that once the two boys who were charged with killing Jamie were in custody it was only a matter of time before talk turned to their viewing habits, a move encouraged by the police releasing to the press a list of video titles which their parents had recently rented. Although there was no discernible connection between the titles in question and the facts of the Bulger case itself, the reality that an emotionally disturbed ten-year old might have gained access to a string of violent “18” certificate horror movies in the first place gave the average punter, and in the end the Conservative government, an easy way out, a convenient explanation for an otherwise unthinkable crime. The abuse that at least one of the young killers had suffered at the hands of his own family was tacitly ignored while child psychiatrists pontificated endlessly on chat shows about the effects of “violent media” on fragile young minds. The tabloids had a field day, reviving the popular myth of the “video nasties” (“snuff” movies apparently available over the counter freely to kids somewhere in the phantom zone,) their front pages sporting images of ad hoc neighbourhood watch committees rounding up horror titles and ceremonially burning the tapes on communal bonfires. It was like the Beatles versus Jesus thing all over again, only on VHS with tits and blood. A classic example of shooting the messenger. No-one could give Jamie back his life or begin to solve the social problems that had created the conditions of his murder. The last thing they wanted to do was examine their own hearts or the possibility that children could be capable of such a thing in the first place, so instead the horror genre provided a simple, larger than life outside evil that could be safely tackled in public to show the leadership had the situation in hand and were taking the necessary measures to prevent such a thing from ever happening again.
Liberal democrat M.P. David Alton skilfully rode the wave of opinion, using the Bulger case to lobby for tighter state controls over the mass media, threatening to introduce a measure which would have effectively banished most horror titles and perhaps all titles unsuitable for children from the shelves of British shops. Under the circumstances I did the only thing I could. Putting on my sole surviving suit I infiltrated a sub-parliamentary committee hastily convened to debate the bill. I was the only film maker and, apart from a drowsy-looking Martin Amis, the only “creative” person to appear before the committee. At one point a number of video boxes were passed around as an example of the sort of filth that the Alton bill was designed to put a lid on. I recognized Romero’s “DAWN OF THE DEAD” alongside Lucio Fulci’s “HOUSE BY THE CEMETARY” and several Argento titles. In fact, some of the titles tut-tutted over by the assembled politicos and social scientists were so old they included silent movies such as F.W. Murnau’s “NOSFERATU” (1921), Benjamin Christensen’s “HAXAN” (1921) and Carl Dreyer’s “VAMPYR” (1931), that had fallen into public domain and been routinely tarted up with lurid S&M-orientated covers for the home video market. I couldn’t help remarking on the fact a handful were old enough to have run into trouble once before: in Nazi Germany, where another set of “idealists” tried to rid society of decadent art, a campaign that scarcely resulted in a kinder or gentler society. Of course I realize I should have kept my mouth shut but I was still young then and new to politics.
“Well I happen to be Jewish…” spluttered one of the care workers, “and you have no right invoking the spectre of the holocaust at this table!”
I made a hasty, half-assed apology, but the damage had been done. Although anxious not to be portrayed by the right wing press as “soft on crime,” the Conservative government nonetheless recognized that tighter controls on film and video would inevitably impact on the lower end of an industry already hard hit by the recession and struggling to maintain a share of a marketplace dominated by American product. You need the low budget home video sector to maintain the ecology that makes the high end product, the E.M. Forster and Hugh Grant movies possible, so I put my case as succinctly as I could, appealing to the consumer/capitalist bottom line and avoiding any further reference to the thornier issue of so-called “artistic” freedom. When I was done Lady Howe of the Broadcasting Standards Commission looked me in the eye and summed my whole life up in a single rhetorical question.
“Are you a mother, Mr. Stanley?”
I wasn’t. So she went into her “well, I happen to be a mother…” routine and after that it was all downhill. She’d said it all before but she said it again anyway and I’d heard it all before so I didn’t bother listening. That’s what politics is about in the old country.
The last nail in the coffin was driven home by the Scala’s projectionist, when he grassed on a longstanding practise of illegally screening Stanley Kubrick’s “CLOCKWORK ORANGE” (1971) as a “surprise film” filling out a triple with Lindsay Anderson’s “IF” (1968) and “O LUCKY MAN” (1973.) The bill drew a loyal core of skins and wannabee droogs, who sometimes brought their staffies and bulls with ’em, but if the Scala came to rely on their unsteady revenue it was against the iron will of Kubrick himself, who had personally withdrawn the film from distribution in the UK, allegedly as part of a deal with the Home Office who in return had granted the expatriate American director permanent residence in the country. The projectionist earned a pay-off from the great auteur himself and sheltered employment at an MGM preview theatre in return for testifying against the Scala’s management in the subsequent legal action doggedly pursued by the reclusive genius. Just over a year after the death of its parent company, after a series of unsuccessful fund raising drives to try and cover the escalating legal costs, the Scala finally went dark. “KING KONG” (1933) was the first film I ever saw, at the tender age of four when my father brought home a print and 16mm projector – what amounted to home viewing in the far off year of 1970. It inspired my early passion for stop motion animation and my first experiments with Super 8.
It was also the first movie to play in the ape house when it was converted to a cinema in 1981. Accordingly it was the last print to go through the gate, ironically in a censored print, shorn of some of its racier moments as Kong playfully paws at Fay Wray’s satin slip. Those of us who were in the audience on that last night were either drunk or weeping or both. But then I always cry when I see the big guy go through his jerky motions, progressing once more towards Calvary atop the Empire State, confused, outflanked and outnumbered by the swooping, droning biplanes, the mechanized avatars of an uncaring new age. The beast took the fall as usual and Carl Denham proclaimed his eulogy, but I was already in the foyer stealing the posters, not wanting to see the lights go up.
Most of the films we fought for, indeed risked our liberty for, are commonly available now. You can pick up “TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE” (1974) or “DRILLER KILLER” (1979) in Wal-Mart or at the supermarket checkout counter, but where’s the fun in that? It’s impossible for words to convey what it was to be young in those days and the unalloyed joy of those contraband tapes. Despite all the huffing and puffing, all the sturm and drang over censorship and artistic freedom, the simple truth remains that most of the titles involved were never much fun anymore after it became legal to watch them. If truth be told, I first got laid thanks to a murky seventh generation dub of “TEXAS CHAINSAW II” (1986.) I’ll always have the home video medium to thank for that, whatever else. Ten years later the same lady I’d fallen for that long ago night finally moved out on me, tossing a VHS copy of Argento’s “THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE” (1970) disdainfully at my feet whilst succinctly delivering the era’s epitaph: “That’s exactly the kind of shit I don’t need in my life anymore.”
Twelve years have passed since the Scala passed into non-existence. “A CLOCKWORK ORANGE” was re-released to packed houses following the death of Stanley Kubrick and is now commonly available on DVD and BLURAY, the media that subsequently displaced video as the home movie format of choice. In a few years even DVD will be gone, replaced by streaming and high-def television. James Bulger’s killers, now dubbed Adult A and Adult B and shielded by new identities have been long since released back into society, having been apparently rehabilitated. Nelson Mandela was himself released from his island prison in 1990 and in the euphoria following the collapse of the apartheid regime all the films that had been banned under the previous administration were opportunistically granted mainstream release. With nothing to fear from the military police now I was able to revisit my birth place and it was a curious thing to drive through Cape town and see “TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE,” “CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST” (1980), “THE EXORCIST” and “I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE” (1978) competing for space at the multiplexes. I screened “DUST DEVIL” for the first time in my home country. It received rave reviews, was endorsed by the ANC leadership as one of the key films of the apartheid era and I was symbolically given the keys to the city by the town mayor. Then, when we tried to get the film released onto the South African circuit, it was abruptly banned once again by the new administration, who ultimately decided they were just as frightened of the devil as their racist predecessors. Jo-Anne Sellar, the producer of “HARDWARE” and “DUST DEVIL” went on to become one of the most successful movers and shakers in modern Hollywood and Nik Powell, Palace’s former CEO who once defended “THE EVIL DEAD” in court, is now the well-loved principal of the UK’s National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield. What we thought of as the “underground” has long since been effectively subsumed by the uber-culture. Every so often I still plug in my VHS player and revisit some of those tapes that have been gathering dust at the back of my shelf but fewer and fewer of them play these days and the spindles make a nasty screeching sound whenever I hit rewind. “HARDWARE” and “DUST DEVIL” are both currently (insanely) owned by Buena Vista, the supreme corporate predator that ate the other predators, nor does the mouse pay royalties despite the fact both titles have been in continuous circulation for 25 years on cable, streaming, DVD and every other platform you could care to name. A nightclub now operates out of the former ape house and while I frequently walk past the venue I have never had the heart to look too closely. That’s me now, going down the street, eyes down, looking at the cracks between the paving stones, still wondering what it was like to be a boy only yesterday, and running through the night with a bucket of clunky VHS videotapes clutched protectively to my chest.
Read more great commentaries from filmmakers like Ed Neumeier (Robocop), Albert Pyun (Cyborg), Russell Mulcahy (Highlander), Todd Farmer (Jason X) as well as great ultimate B-movie stories from hot new authors all part of the Straight to Video series.