October 15, 2016


There's a fine line between the dual identity psychosexual thriller and the traditional horror tale of a ventriloquist fighting a losing battle for sanity with his own dummy. The line is so fine, in fact, that it barely exists. There isn't much difference between Hitchcock's PSYCHO and Attenborough's MAGIC. In both films, an otherwise likeable protagonist finds himself at odds with his antagonistic alter-ego. Both films are about severe repression and how that repression, when it finally surfaces, only leads to horrible conclusions. It's the old fight to the death between the id and the ego, that Freudian battle for control that refuses to reach a cease fire within our subconscious.

In the case of PIN, we have two siblings, Leon and Ursula. They're almost inseparable. We first meet them as children, probably no older than ten. Their father is a doctor, emotionally distant and keen on discipline. We recognize the difference in how the father treats Ursula and Leon almost immediately. At night, he asks his daughter to count to ten, something most of us would have been able to do at half her age. Leon, on the other hand, is asked to count by 7s backwards from 100. Their mother, a socialite, treats every action Leon takes as an insult, right down to his accidental tracking of a little dirt into the house. He isn't allowed to play with other boys. His mother wouldn't want him dirtying his clothes, after all. Leon is isolated and lonely, only kept company by his sister. But he does have one other person he considers a friend.

Pin is an anatomically correct dummy that Leon's father keeps in his office. Referring to it as a “training dummy”, the father uses it to “talk” to children in his office though ventriloquism. But we soon learn that Pin has been uniquely important to the lives of the children, especially Leon. For example, when the kids are caught flipping through a dirty magazine, it's Pin that gives them the sex talk. Pin is clearly the parental figure in Leon's young life. After a particularly hard day, Leon sneaks into his father's office for some alone time with Pin, only to be interrupted by a nurse. As Leon hides behind a curtain, he watches the nurse use his friend as an over-sized sex toy.

We then move into the teenage years of our protagonists. Ursula has gotten herself a reputation for being easy. Leon is nothing more than an outcast. At their junior prom, Leon finds Ursula in the backseat of a car. He viciously attacks the boy she was making out with and then orders Ursula to promise him that she will remain celibate. Some time later, Ursula realizes she is pregnant and Leon comes to the conclusion that there is only one person they can talk to. Pin. At their father's office, Ursula is shocked to learn that Leon can speak in Pin's voice. She's doubly shocked to find out that her brother sincerely believes Pin to be a living being. She confesses her situation to her father and the next day, Leon and Ursula accompany him to his office. He prepares to abort his daughter's pregnancy. As usual, Pin is present.

After their parents die in a car accident (with Pin in the backseat, no less), a relative comes to live with the now collage aged siblings. Leon has descended into full blown madness at this point. Pin tells him that his relative will take control over the house and drive a wedge between him and his sister. Late one night, Leon uses Pin to kill the woman, giving her bad heart one shock too many. With no one to come between him and Ursula, Leon finally starts to get his life on track, even taking up writing. But that all changes when Ursula meets Stan, a nice, handsome college student, and Leon begins to once again tumble down the rabbit hole of insanity, all the while enabled and encouraged by Pin.

There's a quite a bit going on under the surface of this film. I know that because its one of the least subtle psychological thrillers out there. PIN practically shouts DISSOCIATIVE IDENTITY DISORDER INCEST REPRESSED SEXUALITY PERSECUTORY DELUSION at us throughout the entire film. There's very little subtlety here and the near hyperbolic performance of David Hewlett as Leon makes much of the interpersonal relationship stuff hard to swallow. It reaches such a fevered pitch that the film needs to include a scene wherein Ursula (a much more restrained Cynthia Preston) tells Stan that yes, she is well aware that her brother is nuts, but she can't just turn him over to the state because that would break both their hearts and lead to their separation. Make no mistake, that scene is not between a girl and her boyfriend. It's between the filmmakers and us, the audience.

Maybe if the rest of the film were as dialed up to 11 as Hewlett's performance, it wouldn't be as jarring, but PIN plays very, very straight with us. There are some seriously chilling moments here (the best being the final car ride of the parents with Pin lying in the backseat; as the father speeds his way to a presentation, the momentum of the car taking turns at a high speed causes the dummy to “sit up” behind him, the cloth slowly dropping away) and Pin itself is a goddamn nightmare to behold, especially after Leon outfits his friend with artificial skin. It crosses into uncanny valley territory and really creeped me out.

In fact, a lot of this film creeped me out, no matter how shrieking it became. Yes, I would have preferred the film to slowly work its way under my skin, but I did appreciate its willingness to go for an all-out attack on my sense of comfort. I know it might sound like I dislike the film, but that couldn't be further from the truth. I really enjoy PIN and I think it's easily one of the more interesting variations on the old psychosexual/mad ventriloquist formula. But one viewing goes a long, long way and I don't see myself returning to it as often as I do MAGIC or the final act of DEAD OF NIGHT. It's overwhelming in a lot of ways, many of them good, some not so much. It's definitely memorable, I'll give it that, and it has just enough of an emotional core for the final scene to elicit genuine empathy. Nitpicks and tonal concerns aside, I would highly recommend giving it a watch. It's a creepy good time.

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