This week on WTF Sunday, our movie is about more of an internalised sense of dread and disturbance as opposed to the more wacky stuff of recent weeks. Don’t let that put you off though.
That’s some fucked up shit.
A doctor uses ventriloquism and a life-size anatomical doll named Pin to teach his kids about things. As the son gets older, Pin starts talking directly to him. And then things get really weird.
Made in 1988, Pin is a more of a psychological horror movie than a typical jump-scare fun house flick that we get nowadays. Based on the novel by Andrew Neiderman*, it was adapted and directed by Sandor Stern, writer of The Amityville Horror. There is a very unsettling thread running through this whole film right from the first scene to the last; in that regard it is a very successful scary movie.
David Hewlett plays Leon, the son of Terry O’Quinn’s Dr Linden. Cyndy Preston is his two-years-younger sister Ursula. Dr Linden is a stern father who uses Pin to talk to his younger patients as well as his own kids about body issues and sex to apparently avoid awkwardness. All the kids play along with the idea that Pin is alive except for Leon who actually believes it. As he gets older, Leon learns ventriloquism himself and carries on both sides of his conversations with Pin behind his father’s back. [Yarrgh! Here be spoilers!] After his parents die in a road accident with Pin in the car, Leon retrieves the doll and takes it back home. He eventually starts dressing Pin in his father’s suits and gives the doll a latex skin over his bare muscle and tissue exterior. For a then-twenty year old kid, David Hewlett is so good at bringing the creepy to Leon. He takes over the role from age 17 onwards – the film covers Leon’s life from ages 7 to 22 – and you can see that he is already somewhat disturbed from that point in his life, but it just keeps getting worse and worse as the story builds to an ending that I did not see coming, even though it was blatantly signposted in the prologue. I suppose that points to the strength of the storytelling by Stern and his actors. I completely forgot about the sting just before the “15 years earlier” title card popped up.
I don’t know to what extent Neiderman researched the condition when he was writing the book, or how accurate the representation is in the movie, but Leon is diagnosed by his sister as being a paranoid schizophrenic. As well as creating Pin’s voice for the benefit of other people in the room, we see that he hears Pin talk without him doing the typical ventriloquist moving lips thing although there are times when other characters overhear both sides of them talking. I’m not sure if that was an oversight in the edit or can be taken as proof of Leon’s escalating condition. That’s not the only ambiguity in the film though. When Dr and Mrs Linden’s car crashes, it is because Pin sits up in the back seat while they are speeding around a corner. Now of course the centripetal force could have made the doll move, but it is filmed in a way that suggests that just maybe Pin might actually be alive in some way… [Spoilers be gone!]
Often when I watch a film or TV show that features an early performance from an actor that I know well as another character, it sort of spoils the experience a little. I end up thinking of the other thing they have been in. I was a little concerned that I was going to spend the whole 102 minutes of Pin with Stargate on my mind. It is testament to David Hewlett’s performance that that did not happen at all. Although whenever I go back and watch Stargate again I’ll be expecting to see Pin in the background somewhere. The guy really is that good. While Ursula is quite open about being interested in sex, even at age 11, Leon is almost asexual. The one time in the movie he gets his groove on (so to speak) he ends up getting rid of the girl because he can’t stop thinking about Pin. There is also a sense of maybe repressed homosexuality as well as unspoken incestuous desires. The first time Leon is exposed to any kind of sexuality, it is the double whammy of his kid sister showing him a porn magazine and, while visiting Pin at his father’s office, one of the nurses using the anatomically correct doll in an anatomically correct albeit really unpleasant fashion while Leon is hiding behind the screens. And all this when he’s 13 years old! It’s no wonder he was all kinds of odd when he grew up, even writing in his Beowulf-inspired poem about his heroic character contemplating the rape of his sister (subtext alert!).
The film is really all The Hewlett Show. The other actors such as Preston, O’Quinn and John Pyper Ferguson (as Ursula’s one true love Stan) are all very effective and believable but don’t get nearly as much to do in terms of character arcs or development. Leon overshadows everyone. With a lesser actor, this flick really would not have worked as well as it does. He comes close to it once or twice, but never resorts to full-on eye-rolling insanity. It’s a good thing too, as that would have really taken me out of the picture had it happened. It would have broken the spell to see Leon go full-maniac.
Most of the film takes place within the Linden family’s sprawling home, and Stern and his cinematographer Guy Dufaux create a real sense of foreboding in this space. They uses light and shadow very well to build the atmosphere and when Pin starts driving around the house seemingly by himself (in an electric wheelchair that Leon has rigged for remote control) I was really quite freaked out for a second. I can’t remember the last time that happened. Oh wait, yes I do: it was when Sadako crawled out of the television at the end of Ring. That messed me up for days. For that reason alone, if you like a scary movie that might actually scare you instead of just throwing cats in your face, give Pin a try.
*Not Robert R. McCammon’s short story of the same name, although while I’m on that subject, that may be the scariest seven pages I have ever read in my life. It’s from the Blue World collection. Highly recommended.