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Chapter 13: Dying Light

Sometimes the underground stream ducks out of sight so seamlessly you might forget it was there but it never dries up. It flows on beneath the soles of our shoes and out of sight behind the peeling wallpaper. It fills our dreams and those interstitial spaces between worlds that never quite connect with waking life.

My second feature, Dust Devil, had been put into production in the rush of euphoria that followed Hardware's initial boxoffice, but, by the time we reached post-production the writing was already on the wall for British independent cinema. Palace Pictures was experiencing grave cashflow 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 but 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 Dust Devil, which remained trapped in the distribution pipeline.

I never saw my fee for the production and was forced to pour my remaining funds into it's completion, bringing myself and the Shadow Theatre 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, Jane Giles, the Scala's new programmer, 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 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 re-telling 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 discernable 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 hysterical 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 surviving suit I infiltrated a sub-parliamentary committee hastily convened to debate the bill. I was the only filmmaker and, apart from a drowsy-looking Martin Amis, the only 'creative' person to appear before the committee.

At one point a number of box cover illustrations were passed around as an example of the sort of filth that the Alton bill was designed to put a lid on. Il Maestro's oeuvre was ably represented by Deep Red, Tenebrae and Inferno along with a host of other by now familiar titles including good ol' Flavia the Heretic, which had recently been re-released by Nigel Wingrove's Redemption Films. In fact, some of the other titles in the catalog tut-tutted over by the assembled politicos and social scientists included silent movies such as F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1921), Benjamin Christensen's Häxän (1921) and Carl Dreyer's Vampyr (1931), which had fallen into public domain and been routinely tarted up by Nigel with S&M-orientated covers for the mail order market. I couldn't help remarking on the fact that 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 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 exploitation 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 long-standing 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 local 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 U K. The projectionist earned a fat tip from the great auteur and guaranteed 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, and just over a year after the death of its parent company, the cinema finally went dark.

King Kong (1933) was the last print to run through the gate at the ape house. Those of us still there 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 to Calvary atop the Empire State, confused, outflanked and outnumbered by the swooping, droning 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.