Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Pin (1988): or, The See-Through Psycho

Ventriloquist dummies are creepy. This is an established fact. Starting with Michael Redgrave in 1945's excellent anthology flick Dead of Night and perhaps reaching its apex with Anthony Hopkins in 1978's Magic, the "possibly bonkers ventrilquist tormented by his possibly-possessed dummy" trope has always been good for setting up the night sweats. The idea of the inanimate becoming animate, of a soulless block of wood taking on evil sentience, a child's doll suddenly turning its head and winking at you--it's uncanny, wrong, and really the stuff of nightmares.

I mean, Pinocchio becoming a real live boy is a nice idea for cartoons, but just imagine a wood puppet dancing across the floor toward you in a darkened room, singing in its high-pitched, childish voice...would you join in the dance, or grab the nearest hatchet and turn him into kindling?

And don't even get me started on talking crickets.

Anyway, 1991's Canadian psychological thriller Pin (aka Pin...a Plastic Nightmare) belongs squarely in the "evil dummy" genre, and although it does get points for a few interesting changes to the formula (the size and purpose of the dummy here, for instance, is unique as far as I know), it's still pretty much the tried and true "dude goes crazy and thinks his dummy is real, or maybe it really is" story, with a dysfunctional family dynamic layered on to give things a half-measure of Norman-Batesy goodness. Sound good? Well, it is and it isn't. Read on...

We open with the time-honored frame of three punk kids daring each other to go into the one creepy old house in their otherwise idyllic neighborhood. In this case the house has a mannequin of some sort visible in the attic window, apparently looking out on the yard. The bravest of the kids accepts the dare to go up and touch it--but when he does, the thing seems to blink. The kid dutifully retreats, leaving the viewer behind in a small puddle of his urine.

Now we flash back to the salad days of the old house, ten or fifteen years ago, when the place was inhabited by one of those families so completely dysfunctional that you hope they only exist in movies, though you realize they probably don't. Mom is the neat freak to end all neat freaks--she places squeaky plastic covers over all the furniture, mops and dusts obsessively, forces the kids (older brother Leon and baby sister Ursula) to eat standing at the table on little stools and vacuums under the spot they were standing as soon as they finish. The kids accept all this in silence, like good little whipped puppies, and very soon we discover why.

"But Dad, we don't wanna play ring
with Pin...again."

You see, Dad is a physician and a control freak par excellence, played with creepy aplomb by acclaimed character actor and TV star Terry O’Quinn (Millenium, The X-Files, The Stepfather/Stepfather II, and most recently making a splash as John Locke on Lost). It's clear from his interaction with the kids that he's spent their whole lives making them adhere to his rigid ideas of propriety, less through physical threats than through psychological abuse. For instance: every night before bed he calls his children into his study, has them stand at attention, and gives them a difficult word problem to solve--if they succeed, they are congratulated and given a goodnight kiss; if they fail, no affection is shown to them. The fact that Ursula gets easier questions does not go unnoticed by morose, dead-eyed Leon, increasing his animosity toward dear old Dad.

But perhaps most strangely, Doctor Dad is also an amateur ventriloquist, using as his dummy a life-size “teaching model" in his office--think of one of those Transparent Man kits from science class, only full size and very creepy. They call the dummy Pin--short for Pinnochio, natch--and the doctor uses his voice-throwing skills to convince his browbeaten children that Pin is alive and available to answer medical questions. These scenes are pretty well done, with the dummy's dead face and O'Quinn's eerily calm voice adding up to nightmare fuel for us all.

The kids are predictably completely screwed up by their upbringing, clinging to one another for support and sanity in the face of their completely batshit parents. When the kids start to get a little Blue Lagoony in their isolation, Dad has the anatomically correct Pin deliver the old birds and bees lecture, which as you can imagine is extremely helpful and not at all scarring.

"So you see, sex between two people can be a beautiful thing..."

Leon gets the worst of it, though, and the first part of the movie is pretty much about him and his growing psychosis. The flick pours on lots of disturbing set-pieces involving stages in Leon's emotional development, almost all of which go terribly wrong. For instance, long after Ursula has figured out that Pin is just a dummy, Leon still considers him a friend he can talk to when his parents just don't understand. Sneaking into the office to talk to Pin one day, the 9-year-old Leon has to hide when the doctor's assistant comes in to clean the office--and here we learn that Pin is not only anatomically correct but also anatomically erect, as the lonely lady proceeds to get bizzay with the plastic gigolo! Of course thanks to this experience, Leon is traumatized into virtual asexuality.

Young daughter Ursula starts rebelling against her parent's oppressive control, the way repressed teenagers often rebel--by becoming a slut. Leon finds her in the middle of getting pregnant and goes ballistic, dragging her from the backseat of a muscle car, punching her fuckbuddy in the face, and making her promise she will "NEVER DO THAT AGAIN!" It should be noted that while there are slight hints of incestuous desires in Leon--especially later in some disturbing poetry an older Leon writes--mostly he just seems repulsed by sex and wants her to remain pure.

Too late though--she's knocked up at age 15, with only Leon to turn to. Upon discovering her PG rating, Leon insists that they go to Pin for advice, since even at 17 he still believes Pin is alive. When the dummy won't talk to them, Leon snaps and subcosnciously throws his own voice--hello, Master Bates! Pin counsels them to go to Dad with the news, and the disappointed O'Quinn--creepier here perhaps than any other time in the film, performs his own daughter's abortion. Say it with me: eeeeeeewww.

When the parents die in a car accident (caused by Pin, strangely enough, in a scene reminiscent of the terrifying coach ride in the Boris Karloff/Robert Wise/Val Lewton masterpiece The Body Snatcher), Leon becomes the man of the house and moves Pin into the guest bedroom, dressing him and even getting him a rubber mask and some gloves for “skin.” As a minor Ursula is dependent on her brother, whose increasing dependence on Pin makes her more than a little uneasy. Things go from dysfunctional to dangerous with Ursula starts dating a handsome jock she meets at the library, and no points for guessing how it all ends.

Another pretty face.

There’s a lot to like about this movie--the bright colors and 50s style production design work well (bringing to mind another brightly-colored family horror flick, 1989's Vicar-fave Parents), and Pin himself is creepy, combining the fear of mannequins, ventriloquist dummies ,and living dolls into one life-size package. O’Quinn is fantastic as the father, Cyndy Preston is great and likable as Ursula (though you must actually launch your disbelief into orbit to buy her as 15 years old—or even 19), and the way horror is generated mostly from watching kids being progressively fucked up by their parents is an interesting and effective tack.

But once the parents are gone, things kind of fall into a well-worn rut. Pin gets angrier as Leon gets crazier, and his desire to keep Ursula with him and not let her grow up lead to dire consequences for everyone. There are no surprises here, no “whoa” moments (for a textbook “whoa” moment of the type I’m talking about, see the last shot of Lucky McKee's May--WHOA), though the frame-story wrap-up tries to get there. Still, if you’ve seen a few horror movies, from about the 1-hour mark to the 100th minute conclusion, you could probably write the script yourself and get pretty close to what happens, which translates to viewer boredom. And lead actor David Hewlett, who must carry the movie as Leon, is regrettably pretty bad and not at all up to the task. And there’s not even any nekkidity or gore to spice things up in that boring last act.

So in the end I can only give this 1.5 thumbs--some good ideas, but sunk at the end. Some will love it, some will not, but it left me in between. If you have a fear of oppressive parents or of mannequins, you might get more mileage out of it than I did; but there are certainly better, more horrifying dummy movies out there.


The Vicar of VHS said...

Sorry for the low quality of the images here--all I've got is a vhs tape, and these were the best I could find.

Karswell said...

I've never seen PIN but my sister once told me all about it. Reading your review sounds like a totally different movie than what she saw though. So, to contribute to this post I'll add that I am a HUGE fan of Ealing's Dead of Night which I still think it the best / scariest living dummy film of all time... honorable mention goes to The Dummy (episode #33) of Twilight Zone starring Cliff Robertson, that one scared the crap out of me as a kid even more than the Talking Tina episode, but essentially it's just a remake of the Dead of Night seg.

Oh, I actually liked Dead Silence quite a bit too, I mean for a big stupid new blockbuster horror flick it had some eeire, comic bookish moments (most of these are attributed to the creepy Mary Shaw character though and not really the dummies.) Oh well...

The Vicar of VHS said...

Karswell, I agree with your assessment of Dead of Night (which I reviewed previously on the site)--there's a reason it's the gold standard of "living dummy" stories. It set the bar high and while some have almost equalled it (such as the ones you mention), I'm not sure it's yet been surpassed.

I still haven't seen Dead Silence, but I'm a fan of the Saw films and it's in my queue. But I've got a stack of vintage madness to get through first... :)

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