Pin (dir. Sandor Stern, 1988)


Canada, 1988
Director/writer: Sandor Stern

Review by N Emmett.

A group of children cluster outside a large house, where a seated figure stares vacantly out of the window. The kids ponder exactly who or what he is: a paralysed man? A corpse? A dummy? One of them is brave enough to climb up to the window for a better look, only to scarper when he hears the figure tell him to get out in a soft, rasping voice.

The film cuts back to fifteen years beforehand and introduces us to Dr Linden (Terry O’Quinn), the former owner of the house. He is the head of a clean-cut and affluent Canadian family consisting of his wife, his son Leon, his daughter Ursula, and a medical dummy named Pin. The children adore Pin, who teaches them about human biology in his soft, rasping voice, and even gives them presents on their birthdays. When the two kids are on the cusp of adolescence it is Pin who is tasked with explaining the facts of life; Ursula is eager to enter this exciting new world that she has read about in a stolen porn magazine, but Leon is less interested. He has his friend Pin, what more does he need?

As the two youngsters grow older, Ursula (played as a teenager by Cyndy Preston) begins sleeping around with boys, although the over-protective Leon (David Hewlett) is prone savagely beating anybody who comes near his sister with amorous intentions. Leon still goes to Pin for the answers to all of life’s problems – but Ursula has come to realise that Pin was just their father using ventriloquism.

pin1One night, their parents are killed in a car crash. The two teenagers inherit the house, and Leon takes the opportunity to free Pin from his father’s office and make him a full-fledged member of the family. Ursula is prepared to humour him, but it soon turns out that Leon will stoop to desperate measures to ensure that nobody gets between him and Pin…

Written and directed by Sandor Stern and adapted from the novel by Andrew Neiderman, Pin succeeds by treating its questionable premise with unflinching conviction. Stern’s direction, successfully building tension when required, is generally workmanlike – and this is what saves the film. A more sensationalistic treatment of the subject matter could easily have become ludicrous, but Stern’s entirely matter-of-fact approach makes the whole exercise oddly convincing.

The film starts out by dropping us right into the world of the children, where Pin is a constant presence. During the early sequences there is no direct mention of the fact that the dummy’s speech is merely ventriloquism; we instead see things from the point of view of the two kids, who believe that Pin is alive. The surreal result – with the straight-laced and repressed family treating a grotesque talking dummy as a simply fact of life – makes it easier to swallow the subsequent narrative.

pin3Another factor which helps to keep the film afloat is the touch of heightened reality throughout: while Pin may be the only character who is literally made of plastic, everyone else has something artificial about them. The family home is an expanse of white, beige and blond; during the main characters’ childhoods it is kept spotlessly clean by their obsessive mother, who seems to expect her kids to be porcelain figures for the mantelpiece. When Ursula decides to settle down for a steady relationship she appears to be looking for a wholesome Barbie and Ken lifestyle, never quite managing to escape that world of china and plastic.

Pin himself is an inspired creation, reflecting several elements of childhood fantasy. His name is short for Pinocchio, giving him a connection to fairy tale iconography. In some ways he is a beloved toy to the children; and as the kids’ parents hand them birthday presents that were purportedly given by Pin, he also becomes a gift-giving figure like Father Christmas or the Easter Bunny. Finally, although the doctor transforms the dummy into a loveable character, the fact remains that his skinless body and vacant expression make him exactly the kind of thing that would give many children nightmares.

He has another antecedent: as Leon talks to the chair-bound figure, using ventriloquism to give the catatonic partner a voice, it becomes clear that the film has taken a few cues from Psycho. But while that film used the pin2relationship between Norman Bates and his dead mother as a twist ending, Pin turns it into the focus of the entire narrative. The audience will suss out early on exactly what is going on between Leon and his dummy – the story derives its momentum by leaving us wondering exactly how far the obsessive young man will take things.

Of course, as is so often the case with films that use “psychos” as antagonists, Pin is positively antediluvian in its treatment of mental illness. Ursula reads every psychiatric text in the local library and concludes that her brother is a paranoid schizophrenic (she cannot have done that much research, otherwise she would have realised that schizophrenia does not entail multiple personalities); she decides to keep this discovery to herself, however, as she does not want Leon to be “put away”. In the world of Pin, there are two possible fates for the mentally ill: they are locked away in seclusion, or they are left free to begin killing people. There is no question of treating them.

The narrative’s logic is based on a pop psychology that alternates between the crass and the strangely inventive. The early scenes show the doctor as favouring his daughter over his son, setting Leon tricky mathematical puzzles while letting Ursula off easy. As a motivation for Leon’s pin4subsequent obsession with a medical dummy this is not particularly convincing, but in an odd way it is still quite touching: neglected by his real father, Leon found a surrogate in a fictional character that his father created.

Meanwhile, Leon’s antipathy towards sex is explained by a bizarre twist on Freud’s concept of the primal scene. 13-year-old Leon, hiding in his father’s office, sees a nurse enter and begin using the dummy as a sex toy. The shocked Leon, presumably interpreting this as his friend being raped, covers his ears to block out the nurse’s orgasmic moans. When he grows up, he works his repressed desires and obsessions into a series of poems about rape, castration, incest and a Beowulf-like hero named Testes who seeks to impregnate as many women as possible. In contrast to the film’s tendency to dwell on such matters, a stretch of plot in which Ursula becomes pregnant and turns to her own father to carry out an abortion – an idea that could easily have sustained an entire film itself – is quickly skimmed over and subsequently dropped. Apparently, it just was not quite weird enough to have a place in Pin.

As well as the film’s trailer (the only extra feature – despite what the back of the box says, there is no audio commentary) this DVD release comes with a short booklet by Lee Gambin, in which he touches upon the contrast between Pin and his namesake Pinocchio. Whereas Pinocchio tells the story of a boy growing into a fully-rounded individual under the guidance of a loving father, Pin tells pin5the fundamentally nihilistic tale of a boy who was neglected by his parents and so entered a downward spiral towards the destruction of himself and his family.

With its crude portrayal of mental illness, Pin teeters on the brink over ill-advised exploitation. However, thanks to its well-constructed narrative, confident storytelling and occasional ventures into outright weirdness, it ends up as a solid and often inventive psychological thriller.