A pioneer in lo-fi weirdo cinema– Spectacle Theatre aptly calls it “psychedelic splatterpunk”– Charles Pinion is in the grand tradition of opportunistic exploitation filmmakers. An artist with a personal vision, Pinion has spent the last three decades sharing his fascinations by whatever means available. Be it the guise of a shot-on-video horror/skateboarding mashup (1988’s Twisted Issues), a wonderfully incomprehensible porno (Cornhole Armageddon), or his latest, the long-delayed 3-D goopfest American Mummy, one finds an oddly charmed career to be admired and repulsed by. This week, the cult comes alive in New York for “Pinion Armageddon,” a three-date event spanning the likes of Alamo Drafthouse, Cinema Village, and Superchief Gallery in Ridgewood, celebrating Pinion’s past and present. American Mummy is Pinion’s return to cinema, so the series’ curators are hoping to welcome him back with a bang.
“A splatter punk comedy about a skateboarding zombie, how could I not be interested?” Such was programmer Matt Desiderio’s mood after reading about Twisted Issues in a zine. Years later, Desiderio would dedicate a whole issue of his VHS-centric zine Blood Video to Pinion. Commemorating that issue’s release, he also hosted a double feature of Twisted Issues and, until recently, his last film We Await (1996) at Superchief Gallery in Greenpoint.
Such was my introduction to Pinion’s work, and his hazy DIY ethos is something to behold. Often frustrating, often exhilarating, Pinion makes full use of his resources; he’s constrained, sometimes needfully patchwork, but still dedicated. To this day, Pinion’s films come under his own banner, Inferential Pictures, where his films are readily available. Rarely one to withhold his appreciation, Pinion himself will appear at “Pinion Armageddon,” where viewers will find that, like many producers of grime and gore, he’s a well-spoken and approachable soul, no matter what vibe his dirty ideas might give off.
A student of Talking Heads, Flannery O’Connor, and The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies, Pinion eventually advanced his craft in New York City and San Francisco, but it was Gainesville, Florida where things got moving, all while he was exposed to various punk and experimental acts. “I sought out energy and attitude more than virtuosity,” he’d later say in Blood Video. He’d play in bands, and print flyers and zines and shirts.
Twisted Issues emerged from a desire to document the vibrant Gainesville scene. Pooling ideas from surrounding scenesters, including the famed skateboard zombie who bolts his own foot to his deck, Twisted Issues is a film that defies categorization, and was Pinion’s own farewell love-letter to Gainesville. New York was the next stop.
As Pinion proved with his next film, smashing one’s own boundaries was as important as smashing somebody else’s. After doing various production work on independent features and shorts, 1993’s Red Spirit Lake (which will screen uncensored at Superchief on Friday) was very much a turnaround and an advancement in Pinion’s abilities. The grain and washed-out neon abetted by home video add texture to the film’s atmosphere. (“Crazy rainbow colors and smeared edges just worked for me,” he’d say). Pinks, greens, and blues fill the frames of this hyper-violent blend of gothic horror and industrial surrealism.
Anchored by a basic plot about demonic cults seeking to overtake a cabin from witches (here played by strippers from the city), Red Spirit Lake proves to be anything but basic with disturbing sex (be it a solo act or with a partner), mutilation, and gallows humor. Unlike many cheapo shot-on-video titles, Red Spirit Lake bursts with an enormous cast and often-too-elaborate plot. The combination of execution and content produces an unforgettable disarray. Co-star Tommy Turner, who himself was treated to a retrospective at Spectacle, will appear with one of his own films.
Having attracted the likes of grindhouse pioneer Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case, Frankenhooker), Pinion’s films had the rare privilege of being a contemporary title released by Seattle-based Something Weird Video, an underground distributor that has only recently merged with Alamo Drafthouse’s AGFA. After 1996’s We Await, a 16mm production formerly known as Killbillies, Pinion found himself “barely employed and adrift,” as he put it to Blood Video. Having formed a bond with the adult magazine Screw, Pinion drew dirty cartoons and soon moved to Los Angeles, where he shot and edited porno films. Under the name Charley Crow, Pinion was yet another underground filmmaker who relied upon pornography as a means for a creative outlet. Having spooked the heads of Extreme Associates with We Await, Pinion/Crow was given free rein to make whatever he wanted – “as long as there are five fuck scenes in it.”
Though critically acclaimed by Adult Video News– perhaps because they were so singular– Cornhole Armageddon and Archer’s Last Day were far from popular (“You could hear VCRs shutting off across America”). With bizarro dialogue and over-elaborate plots about suicide cults, one can understand why. But they remain an extension of Pinion’s vision, which is why “Pinion Armageddon” will not leave these out. Don’t get too squeamish– or even disappointed, if you’re looking to be titillated; the hardcore scenes will be cut when they screen alongside Red Spirit Lake at Superchief.
Though Pinion’s latest, the long-delayed American Mummy (only now getting a Blu-ray release after being shot in 2011) is sleeker and more conventional than previous entries, one does notice some of the director’s classic tropes emerging. Green bodily fluids splash the camera, practically-made corpses stare with wide-eyed surprise, and an overall embrace of low-budget sensibilities run throughout. Pinion never likes to let audiences forget what format they are watching on, and American Mummy is glaringly a low-budget film shot on digital 3-D, make no mistake.
Marketed in the vein of the recent Tom Cruise bombed blockbuster, Pinion’s latest may prove more delightful, considering it’s a traditional mummy-based horror film, which is seemingly rare nowadays. It’s screening in 3-D at Alamo Drafthouse Yonkers on Tuesday and at Cinema Village on Saturday. At the latter, Pinion will join New York underground filmmaker Scooter McCrae (like Pinion, he had his films released by Something Weird) for the most off-putting monster mash this Halloween season. Before Saturday’s screening of American Mummy, Pinion will be conducting a signing at Forbidden Planet, where Desiderio curates the video section.