First published on 23 Oct 2011. Updated on 28 Aug 2012.
According to Dean Brandum, the multi-storey car park next to the Forum theatre is “hallowed ground”. It was once the enormous Majestic Theatre, retooled and refurbished as the Chelsea in 1960. By the mid-'70s, however, The Chelsea had become Melbourne’s home of exploitation cinema. “Lots of pornography,” says Brandum, “and lots of European horror like Giallo films. The story goes that you could always see more rats than customers.”
Brandum is an academic with a passion for Melbourne’s cinematic past. His website, Technicolour Yawn, is a fascinating survey of what he calls “Melbourne movie-going during the R-rated years: 1970-1984”. Walking the streets with him is like communing with the city’s big screen ghosts.
The introduction of TV to Australia in the 50s hit all cinemas hard, but it made Melbourne’s newsreel cinemas “pretty much obsolete,” says Brandum. The Albany, near the corner of Swanston and Collins Streets, was one of the first to turn to feature films. “You’d get a lot of biker films playing here, LSD movies, Edgar Allan Poe films and Hammer horrors.” Once Australia’s R certificate arrived in 1971, though, it moved towards adult movies - and eventually became the ‘Albany Pussy Galore’.
The rapid slide from newsreels to arthouse to erotica repeats time and time again. In fact, a single Swanston Street arcade held two separate adult cinemas in the '70s. The Penthouse Cinema would play “really nasty stuff” like Love Train for SS and Emmanuelle and the Last Cannibals at night – but during the day were still showing matinees of kid’s cinema like Benji. It was shut down after complaints it was driving away respectable customers from the nearby McDonald's.
The Roma theatre, first opening in the mid-60s with titles like Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew, became an adult house with single films for long stretches. “Bedroom Mazurka ran here for close to two years. It’s hard to imagine only one film could play five times a day for two years!” Credit where credit’s due, though. The infamous Crazy Horse on Elizabeth Street is actually the longest continually running theatre in Melbourne. Since opening in 1952 as the Star, it played newsreels, Three Stooges films, and the early work Mario Bava before settling exclusively on pornography.
It wasn’t all sex, of course. There was also drugs and rock and roll. In the late '70s, the Billboard nightclub was the Total Cinema, known for playing popular rockumentaries and concert films in the wake of Woodstock and Gimme Shelter. “It didn’t hide the fact it was very – let’s say – ‘marijuana friendly’.”
The immaculate Metro on Collins Street was once one of Melbourne’s most beautiful cinemas – but after a takeover by Greater Union and a steady diet of exploitation films, it became the Mayfair. “Basically if you wanted to see kung fu?” says Brandum, “You came to the Mayfair. In the early '80s it was playing an awful lot of slasher films like Prom Night, too. This once grand and gorgeous old cinema, now showing non-stop kung fu, softcore, and slasher.”
Eventually the Mayfair made way for a collection of boutique Collins Street stores. Even its psycho killers and martial arts masters couldn’t protect it.