A grindhouse cinema is born in South London

Born first as a programme at The Cinema Museum, The Nickel is now moving into a permanent space, offering deep cuts and obscurities to a cine-curious audience.


Oisín McGilloway


Dominic Hicks

South London has always been alive with arts and culture from all corners of the world, with every square mile boasting a different world of creativity that everyone is welcome to step into. Tucked within this patchwork is The Nickel, an upcoming repertory cinema and the area’s latest foray into historical rediscovery – but the forgotten history here isn’t so much distant as it is unconventional…

Started by filmmaker Dominic Hicks as a series of pop-up screenings at The Cinema Museum before moving to its own venue in Camberwell, The Nickel regularly runs the gamut from the grindhouse to the arthouse on a mixture of celluloid formats as well as VHS and digital. “The Nickel is an attempt to reclaim the screen for people who love cinema,” Hicks explains. “We want to make an alternative, radical space that brings together an adventurous audience for a wide array of adult-oriented programming, from classics to cult trash to undefinable headfuck oddities.” With this manifesto, their programme might include silent pre-code shocker The Unknown, curiously profound American sexploitation Fleshpot on 42nd Street, Italian Poliziotteschi Milano Calibro 9, hyperkinetic Japanese jidaigeki Shogun Assassin, scuzzy shot-on-video queer flick Blonde Death, blood-soaked satanic panic B-movie I Drink Your Blood and Věra Chytilová’s kaleidoscopic Daisies – all in the same week.

“Tech companies would prefer us to sit at home watching films on our laptops, while major studios release increasingly bloated franchise films to lure people back to the multiplex,” Hicks says. To this end, he shares a sentiment from Nate Wilson, director of The All Golden: “They say that cinema is equal parts art and business. Well, if the business is dying, then that just leaves the art.”

“Aside from being a 60-seater screen,” Hicks accords, preserving the art that has been left behind is “really what sets The Nickel aside from the average multiplex.” But it seems that describing The Nickel in these terms is doing it a disservice; with screening practices firmly in place and the fringe films of a bygone era on their radar, how has an initiative like The Nickel raised almost £14,000 and acquired a permanent residency in South London? What has brought this niche area of movie fandom into the spotlight, or perhaps more importantly, why has it happened now?

Well, as a ‘repertory’ cinema, The Nickel will focus on the traditional, cinematic experience of both classic and cult movies: “The Nickel will offer up regular themed nights, providing a sense of community for film lovers with a particular cinematic niche,” says Hicks. The point of this, particularly on celluloid or tape, is to bring these films out of the ethereal state of memory and ground them in an encounter with cinematic history that streaming cannot provide. “Instead of atomising audiences on streaming platforms at home, The Nickel will bring people together to share their obsessions and be proud of their passion – a place for the arthouse crowd to rub shoulders with gorehounds and kung fu freaks.”

As tangible as the film reels themselves, The Nickel seeks to create a space to exchange love for subterranean cinema that extends out of the screen and bounces between audience members. “At their time of release,” Hicks explains, “exploitation films – and later video nasties – caused offence amongst religious conservatives, who attacked them on moral grounds (despite likely never venturing into the theatres they played). The inner-city audiences at Grindhouse cinemas, however – who were perhaps more likely to be on the fringes of society – loved them. Modern audiences might take issue with the politically tactless excess of these films, but their libidinal energy and aesthetic innovation, unshackled by convention and unchecked by the dictates of ‘good taste’, often make usual Hollywood fare seem pale and sterile by comparison.”

By creating a safe space for audiences to encounter these relics, The Nickel contextualises a celebration of undermining censorship within the history of some of the films’ now outdated ideas. “That’s really the point of a repertory screen; to allow audiences to simultaneously engage with cinema through both the lens of the past and the lens of today.”

But there’s another benefit of a space like The Nickel. As far back as the theatres of 42nd Street, grindhouse movie theatres have provided a space for filmmakers who were otherwise neglected by conventional narrative modes and industry practices, creating an alternative parallel cinema for those who have been marginalised by Hollywood.

Hicks cites blaxploitation films as an example. These films “brought with them powerful and cathartic representations of blackness that were free to be far more overt than black roles offered by mainstream studio product […] Studio films that dealt with race (like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) were well-intentioned polemics for a largely white, middle-class audience (and for the Academy), while exploitation films like Truck Turner and Coffy played to packed theatres in black neighbourhoods for months.” So the preserving nature of a repertory cinema has found another purpose: in the same way that these films are narratively subversive, revisiting films about social groups who weren’t allowed a voice in their time celebrates them in retrospect, something that society finally seems ready for.

Oliver Sims’ award-winning music video for his song Hideous is a prime example of a queer artist using the expressivity of blood-splatter and hyper-concept to make the case for queer representation as different, but a different that exists and that we have to get used to. “This unrestricted otherness is a central part of the legacy of the grindhouse and alternative, repertory cinema,” Hicks explains, “And something we want to sustain at The Nickel, by inviting programmers from all identities and backgrounds to feel supported in taking risks with their selections.”

The Nickel’s trailblazing campaign is just more evidence that the audiences are out there and ready to be shocked and dismayed, be it through love of the gory and the crazed, or merely a fascination with all things different. With plans to start daytime workshops on writing, acting and shooting, as well as a zine and a podcast to accompany programming, I wasn’t surprised when Hicks assured me that The Nickel was not just a grindhouse – it is becoming a venue for much more than crazy car chases and blood-splattered slashers. Though you should enter with caution, this is certainly one to look out for.

Follow The Nickel on Instagram and X.

Published 9 Jul 2024

Tags: The Nickel

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