Welcome to Missed Connections, a weekly column where I get to highlight films that are little known and/or unfairly maligned.
I’ll be shining a light in two directions — I hope to introduce you to movies you’ve never seen and possibly never heard of, and I’ll attempt to defend films that history, critical consensus, and maybe even your own memories haven’t been very kind to.
This week’s entry involves a doll, a common object of terror in genre movies, but rather than be used to terrify people this doll is only meant to educate. As they say though, a little knowledge can be dangerous.
We open on a big suburban home as a handful of young boys hide nearby staring intently at the open upstairs window. A figure sits within, undisturbed behind the curtains flapping in the breeze. One boy climbs the front porch in a display of bravado, but as he approaches the window to get a better look the motionless figure appears to speak and demands he leave.
Fifteen years earlier, Leon and Ursula are young siblings enamored with their father’s (Terry O’Quinn, The Stepfather) life-size anatomical figure which he calls Pin and uses in his practice as a physician. He throws his voice into Pin to have conversations with the kids typically focused on educational exchanges. When the pair are caught looking through a dirty magazine it’s Pin who teaches them about sex, reproduction, and the human body.
His anatomically correct penis comes in handy there.
As teenagers the siblings part ways in their approach to Pin. Ursula (Cynthia Preston, Carrie) knows he’s just a doll and that their father is the one voicing him, but Leon (David Hewlett, Rise of the Planet of the Apes) still believes. Their father discovers that not only does Leon think Pin is real but that he’s been holding his own conversations with the doll — and doing Pin’s voice — but his concerns are short-lived as both parents die soon after in a car crash.
Leon’s rigid beliefs, lessons taught by a firm father, a clean-freak mother, and a soft-spoken Pin over the years, become an obsession. The young man sees Pin as a member of the household, and he sees himself as protector of his sister’s well-being. This doesn’t bode well for her gentlemen callers.
1988’s Pin is based on a novel by horror bookshelf staple Andrew Neiderman, and while this was his first to be adapted his later high point came with the Keanu Reeves-led adaptation of The Devil’s Advocate. Pin was adapted by Sandor Stern whose previous credits were as writer of the Gabe Kaplan comedy Fast Break and the haunted house classic The Amityville Horror. His directorial debut — and still only such effort — is a creepy and unsettling little gem that never found anywhere near their level of success.
At its core the film is a psychological thriller about one man’s madness and the carnage that ensues from it, but there are themes that go beyond the simple terrors. Sex, authoritarian control, and the dangers of even well-intentioned deception all come into play here.
The children’s father isn’t shy about teaching them about sexuality from the biology to the urges, but the kids take different lessons. Ursuala sees the joy and is excited at the prospect of exploring her own sexual desires, but Leon takes the opposite view. To be fair, he’s also damaged somewhat by catching his father’s nurse masturbating with an engorged Pin, so we should probably cut him a little slack. Ursula’s free love philosophy results in a pregnancy, and a small town being what it is it’s her father’s office she winds up in for the abortion. He asks if Leon wants to stay and observe — a question crossing all manner of lines — but the disappointed teen declines.
Leon’s own attempts at intercourse don’t even reach that stage as thoughts of Pin in the next room overhearing his sweaty grunts leave him unable to follow through, and that in turn fuels his rage against the girl he brought home. Like too many men in the real world he channels his own inadequacies towards blaming the woman and subsequently punishing her. That same mentality applies to his own sister as he attempts to control her libidinous cravings by targeting her boyfriend. It’s about madness, but entitlement and possessiveness play an equal role.
Through it all sits Pin, and while the film never really suggests the plastic doll is alive it teases that perception through both the cinematography and the reaction of other characters. If someone believes he’s real isn’t that just as powerful as if he actually was? Leon was raised believing it, and he in turn attempts to force that belief onto others by making them converse with Pin and worse. He uses the doll to terrify and frighten, and once the suggestion is out there in the ether those on the receiving end do their own heavy lifting in growing more and more frightened.
For all the threats in the world, humanity will always be its own worst enemy. Pin suggests that the things we choose to believe about ourselves and others goes a long way towards informing how we treat ourselves and others. Maybe Pin’s not such a bad teacher after all.