(1988) Written and directed by Sandor Stern; Based on the novel by Andrew Neiderman; Starring: David Hewlett, Cyndy Preston, John Ferguson and Terry O’Quinn; Available on DVD
“I wanted to take a look at siblings who grow up in the same family and have divergent paths.” – Sandor Stern (from DVD commentary)
If there’s one thing the O Canada Blogathon has taught me, our friendly neighbor to the north has a way of surprising us with a wealth of unexpected cinematic treasures. A hearty thanks to co-hosts Ruth of Silver Screenings and Kristina of Speakeasy for hosting yet another remarkable blogathon, showcasing Canada’s many contributions to film. I’m pleased to return for a third time with yet another unexpected gem, Pin: A Plastic Nightmare (also known as simply Pin). This little psychological thriller proves it doesn’t take a lot of bucks or big name stars to bring some major chills. You want creepy? You’ve got it in spades.
Writer/director Sandor Stern, perhaps best known for writing the screenplay for The Amityville Horror (1979), based his script for Pin on Andrew Neiderman’s 1981 book. It was shot over a period of 31 days in Montreal with a predominately Canadian cast (the sole American actor was Terry O’Quinn). Due to a poor reception at a test screening in Los Angeles, and the fact that cash-strapped distributor New World Pictures closed its theatrical division, Pin went direct to video in the U.S., and only saw a theatrical release in Canada. The film largely faded into obscurity, but enjoyed a modest cult following. Thanks to my trusty copy of the Psychotronic Video Guide, I was fortunate to learn about its existence.
* Fun fact: Although Stern always aspired to become a writer, he graduated as a physician. His medical background lends his film some added veracity to this twisted story.
Leon (David Hewlett) and his younger sister Ursula (Cynthia Preston), live with their stern father, Dr. Linden (Terry O’Quinn), and clean freak mother (Bronwen Mantel). Dr. Linden runs a family medical practice, where he uses an anatomical dummy nicknamed “Pin” (short for Pinocchio, because he doesn’t tell a lie) as an instructional tool, and sometimes speaks through it to talk to the children. Ursula sees her father’s ventriloquism for what it is, but to her brother, Pin is a living, breathing person. The story skips ahead 15 years to the present. After his parents suffer a fatal car accident, Leon brings Pin home and regards him as a member of the family, much to Ursula’s chagrin.
Hewlett is exceptional as the mentally unbalanced Leon, who views himself as Ursula’s protector. But while his sister has grown up to be reasonably well adjusted, Leon becomes more withdrawn from society. In his DVD commentary, Stern described Leon as “Norman Bates with a soft side.” Much like Bates, Leon remains frozen in a pre-adolescent state, caught between childlike fantasies and the responsibilities of adulthood. He attempts to take on his father’s role as family patriarch, while consulting Pin for life advice. To complete the illusion that Pin is a real person, Leon covers Pin in fake skin and dresses the dummy in his father’s clothes.
Pin is a relentless study in psychological dysfunction, which sets the viewer on edge and doesn’t let up. In the film’s establishing scenes, we witness the seeds of family discord. Dr. Linden approaches his relationship to his children with clinical detachment. His obsessive-compulsive wife keeps an immaculate house (complete with plastic on the furniture), which resembles a museum. In one of the film’s more disturbing scenes, teenage Ursula becomes pregnant and seeks an abortion from her father, who approaches it with the same unemotional state as everything else. When he discovers that Leon has been having conversations* with Pin on his own, his first response, as with Ursula’s situation, is to cover it up. Whenever something unpleasant occurs, the father and children conspire to conceal it from Mrs. Linden. Unlike Leon, Ursula is much more resilient to traumatic life events, and grows up to start a healthy relationship with a young man. On the other hand, Leon continues his descent into unhealthy territory, and ambivalence toward sex. He adopts his father’s cold language, referring to sex as “the need,” a purely biological imperative.
* Pin’s voice, supplied by Jonathan Banks, is particularly unnerving. His calm, measured speech pattern is reminiscent of Hal from 2001. Stern commented that he purposely wanted a “neutral” voice, which wouldn’t be recognizable as belonging to Dr. Linden or Leon.
Pin: A Plastic Nightmare is a true cult film, revered by a few and unknown by most. Like its characters, it’s far from perfect, but it’s easy to excuse a few creaky plot elements when the rest of the film works so well. It’s not about body count, gore, or jump scares, but works its way under your skin in a more insidious fashion, creeping into your brain with a Hitchcock-style precision. Sandor Stern orchestrates a profile of psychological torment, understanding that it’s not what you see, but what you don’t see (or think you see) that plays with your mind. Pin isn’t nearly as well-known as it deserves to be. While it was a crime this film was buried, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t go the extra mile (or kilometer) to find one of Canadian cinema’s best-kept secrets.