Pin: a psychological horror gem you may have missed

Originally released in 1988, the indie horror Pin’s reissue on disc is the perfect chance to catch up with a forgotten gem, Ryan writes...

Proving that horror movies don’t have to be gory or particularly violent to push an audience’s buttons, 1988‘s Pin is the kind of film that works its way into your subconscious and roosts there, ominously. Adapted from the novel of the same name by author Andrew Neiderman (whose later book The Devil’s Advocate was also made into a film), Pin – also known as Pin: A Plastic Nightmare – has all the trappings you might expect of a fairly schlocky piece of horror. There’s a creepy medical doll, ventriloquism (something that crops up a lot in horror), a remote house, and a sexually-repressed character who harbours all kinds of strange and dark obsessions.

Standor Stern, who both directed and wrote the screenplay, flirts with these and other genre staples, yet refuses to give into them entirely. The result is an unusually intelligent and brilliantly acted psychological chiller.

David Hewlett stars as Leon, a troubled young man whose less than ideal upbringing has left him on the brink of instability. His father, Dr Frank Linden (the great Terry O’Quinn) runs a medical practice successful enough to afford an enormous house in the countryside, but his form of parenting is remote and cold. Not that Leon’s mother, played by Bronwen Mantel, is much better – obsessed with housekeeping and cleanliness, she’s so irked by the sight of mud on her carpet that she practically forbids her son from going outside and mixing with other children.

Instead, Leon’s only childhood friends are his wild, carefree younger sister Ursula (Cynthia Preston) and, more worryingly, a medical doll named Pin, which his father keeps at his surgery. Possessing a genuine gift for ventriloquism, Dr Lindon often talks to his children through Pin, providing long and awkward lessons about human reproduction. Ursula finds all of this quite amusing, but Leon, the more isolated and needy of the two, clings to the belief that Pin’s a living, breathing human. 

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This strange belief lingers on well into adulthood, at which point Leon and Ursula are orphaned and left to live alone in their huge and remote house. So naturally, Leon brings Pin home to stay – and it’s here that Leon’s mental state really begins to fray around the edges.

To describe much more of Pin’s story would merely deaden its impact, but it’s sufficient to say that Sandor Stern’s film expertly digs beneath the surface of its characters. Cynthia Preston is excellent as an effervescent young woman caught between her desire for a normal teenage life and the growing realisation that her brother is mentally ill, while David Hewlett – later of Stargate TV fame – is absolutely perfect as Leon.

Everything from his precisely styled and parted hair to his rod-like posture to his choice of crisply ironed clothes betrays his troubled personality – having drifted from a traumatic childhood into grown-up life, Leon’s inherited his father’s coldness and some of his mother’s tidiness, but none of the skills he needs to survive in the adult world. Rather, he lives in a fantasy world of horrifying poetry and rambling conversations with Pin, who ‘speaks’ with a strangled, high-pitch voice that is enough to inspire dread all on its own.

There are hints of Psycho in Pin’s Freudian undertones, particularly in its more comically macabre moments, but there’s also real humanity and dramatic depth. It’s interesting to note that fellow Canadian David Cronenberg was shooting Dead Ringers at around the same time Stern was making Pin, because both films have particular things in common. 

Just as Dead Ringers was about two siblings who were physically identical but diametrically opposed in terms of personality, so Pin deals in contrasts. Ursula is flirty and outgoing where Leon is shy and evidently repulsed by human contact; Pin is inanimate and controlling, while Leon is mobile yet utterly at the doll’s mercy. And just like Dead Ringers, Pin is as much a tragic drama as a horror film – Leon’s a strange character, but also entirely sympathetic.

Executive producer Pierre David also produced several of Cronenberg’s films, which explains why a snippet of 1981‘s Scanners is briefly shown in a cinema sequence. Pin is made with the same medical precision as Cronenberg’s films – particularly his later ones – and it’s not hard to imagine that, in a different reality, the King of Venereal Horror might have been interested in tackling an adaptation of Neiderman’s book himself. 

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As it is, Stern’s use of slow dramatic build-up gives Pin’s jabs of horror real, Cronenbergian power. Pin himself is a fearsome creation, a shiny-skinned ghoul who fixes you with his unbilnking stare. One bizarre early scene featuring Pin and a nurse – a moment almost as traumatic for us as it is for the young Leon – plants an intriguing seed in the audience’s mind. Pin’s joints are articulated, with his head able to move freely like a flesh-and-blood human’s. Could it be that, at some dreadful point in the film, he’ll suddenly spring to life? Throughout, Stern plays with that possibility wonderfully, fulfilling some expectations and violently confounding others.

Barely registering in cinemas on release in the late 80s, Pin is one of those films that has quietly persisted ever since. It’s an uneasy, disquieting film, certainly, and less obviously gratifying than a knife-flashing slasher movie, but it’s also rewarding and entirely unforgettable. Like the eerie stare of its titular doll, Pin is the kind of film that mesmerises from start to finish.

Pin is out on DVD now from Arrow Films.

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