The Film: 4/5
Canada was a magical place for horror fans during the 1980’s. Between the high gloss slasher horrors of Prom Night and My Bloody Valentine and David Cronenberg’s headier genre entries Scanners, Videodrome, and The Fly it seemed that the nation that bore forth into this world the majority of Saturday Night Live’s alumni was supplying the bulk of the decade’s bloodiest and most memorable cinematic nightmares. There were a lot of smaller films that got lost in the shuffle and ultimately didn’t make it to the U.S. until they were given perfunctory releases on the bustling home video market. Among them was Pin, the 1988 feature directorial debut of Ontario-born screenwriter (The Amityville Horror) Sandor Stern. The film was based on a novel written and published seven years earlier by Andrew Neiderman, whose 1990 book The Devil’s Advocate would get the film treatment near the end of the decade under the direction of Taylor Hackford with Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves in the lead roles. Pin has grown into a minor cult film over the years due to its unusual plot (which borrows from movies such as Psycho and Magic) and a reliance on character development and the creation of an atmosphere of carefully mounting dread and sadness. Now that it has been released on Region 2 DVD by Arrow Video as part of their Arrowdrome line perhaps we can discover for ourselves if Pin truly deserves its place in the pantheon of neglected horror gems.
Leon Linden (David Hewlett) and his sister Ursula (Cynthia Preston) spent their entire lives in a sheltered existence dominated by their doctor father (Terry O’Quinn) and compulsive neat freak mother (Bronwen Mantel). Without any love or nurturing coming from their aloof parents the two siblings had to rely on each other for emotional support. Their only true friend is Pin, an anatomically-correct, life-size translucent doll that their father uses to educate them about the workings of the human body. Dr. Linden has also convinced the children that Pin can actually speak by throwing his voice. One afternoon Leon sneaks into his father’s office desiring advice from Pin, but after witnessing a nurse doing something very inappropriate with the doll the young man suffers a traumatic psychological break. He grows up to be overly protective of Ursula, who is only 15 years old but notorious throughout their high school for her promiscuity. Then one evening their parents are killed in a car accident and Leon and Ursula are on their own for the first time ever. While Ursula embraces the opportunity to finally have a life outside of the confines of their family home, which includes a job at a local library and a boyfriend (John Ferguson) who treats her with decency, Leon grows increasingly withdrawn and jealous of his sister’s happiness, fueled in part by his “conversations” with Pin. These complicated emotions soon give way to murderous madness as Leon takes deadly action to protect himself and Ursula from any interlopers he distrusts.
Pin doesn’t call too much attention to itself. On the surface it’s a very unexceptional film, with few characters and a methodical pace for the first two acts. Director Stern, who also adapted the script from Neiderman’s novel, garnered much experience behind the camera filming eight made-for-television films (including 1985’s John and Yoko: A Love Story, featuring future Doctor Who Peter Capaldi as George Harrison). He directs Pin with a lack of visual intensity, instead focusing his energies on bringing out the dramatic possibilities inherent in the screenplay and coaxing modulated performances from his young, mostly unknown actors. The great Terry O’Quinn had already appeared in several major motion pictures by the time he played the strict Dr. Linden in Pin so he is able to work wonders with what little he is provided on the page. Bronwen Mantel (Secret Window) is also very reliable as Leon and Ursula’s mother though the character is not at all likeable.
The movie mostly belongs to David Hewlett and Cynthia Preston as the teenaged Linden spawn forced to grow up fast in the wake of an unexpected tragedy. Hewlett, whose future credits would include Stargate: Atlantis and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, is in fine form here giving a performance that owes a debt to Anthony Perkins’ work as Norman Bates in the Psycho films. Leon is a character not dissimilar from Bates, a man-child at war with himself and a world he perceives is out to destroy the livelihoods of his sister and himself. It is difficult to walk the line that separates sympathetic insanity and justifiable evil, but Hewlett is able to do so without veering off the edge into over-the-top lunacy as so many actors playing horror villains have been guilty of in the past. Preston is every bit her co-star’s equal and in some scenes she surpasses Hewlett’s work with a performance etched out of child-like vulnerability and an innate longing for the normal life only made possible by the deaths of her mother and father. Supporting players like Ferguson (Drive), Patricia Collins (Atom Egoyan’s Speaking Parts and The Adjuster), and Jacob Tierney (The Neon Bible) all perform above expectations in their limited roles. Helene Udy (The Dead Zone) provides the film with the obligatory topless nudity.
The single most unsettling image of the film bound to stick with viewers the longest is Pin himself. A seemingly harmless medical dummy transformed into an instrument of terror, the life-size doll’s voice is provided in a gentle, hushed whisper by famed character actor Jonathan Banks (Breaking Bad, Wiseguy) and has a greater effect inducing chills than six movies’ worth of bad Freddy Krueger puns. But then again you might feel, as I do, that the moment in Pin that will haunt your dreams is the final scene. It’s not played for shock value but rather as the natural conclusion to the story. I felt incredible sadness as the end credits begin to roll, and it’s rare when a film affects me that deeply. For that alone I recommend this disquieting little treasure of 80’s horror.
Anchor Bay Entertainment had previously released Pin on Region 1 DVD in early 2001, and Arrow appears to have borrowed their old transfer. The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio. Picture quality is soft but not fuzzy and the colors are solid. Grain is present in the cinematography of Guy Dufaux (Barney’s Version) but not overwhelming. Arrow has backed the video up with a fine English 2.0 stereo audio track. No complains here. Dialogue is clear as are the ambient effects mix and the schizophrenic music score by Peter Manning Robinson (Radioactive Dreams) comes through with terrific clarity. No subtitles have been included.
The only extra on this Arrowdrome release is the original theatrical trailer (2 minutes).
Pin is a flawed but haunting and original Canadian chiller with more complex themes and characters than you would normally find in an 1980’s horror film. Fans of the genre would do themselves a great favor by giving this neglected jewel of a fright flick a viewing. It’s quite worthy.