Pin, stylized as PIN, and fully titled as Pin: a Plastic Nightmare, is a 1988 Canadian psychological horror film written and directed by Sandor Stern, shot in Montreal, and based on the novel of the same name by Andrew Neiderman. The film stars David Hewlett, Cynthia Preston, and Terry O’Quinn, with Bronwen Mantel, John Pyper-Ferguson, and Jonathan Banks, who did the voice of Pin.
Janet Maslin of The New York Times called it “a cool, bloodless, well-made thriller with a taste for the quietly bizarre.” Andrew Marshall of Starburst rated it 9/10 stars and wrote, “A low-key psychological horror produced at a time when the genre was swamped with interminable sagas of invincible otherworldly serial killers, Pin is subtle, disturbing, and brilliant.” Charles Tatum from eFilmCritic.com awarded the film a very positive 5 out of 5 stars, praising the film’s creepy music score, and direction, as well as Hewlett and Preston’s performances. Pin was featured in Fangoria magazine’s 101 Best Horror Movies You’ve Never Seen. It has since become a cult film, and a remake, to be directed by Stern, was announced in 2011.
Here is a link to quotes from the film, and here are links to YouTube videos of the full movie (I linked them all in case any of them get removed after my publication of this article.).
The film begins with a group of boys looking up at a window on the second floor of an upper middle class family’s house, where a seated, motionless man is looking out, rather like Mrs. Bates in Psycho. Is this a man, or a dummy? And like Mrs. Bates, is this person dead, or alive?
This second question, something the boys are wondering about, introduces one of the important themes of the film, that of the blurred border between life and death, between being an inanimate object, or an animate one. Pin is a medical dummy named after Pinocchio, the animated, sentient puppet whose nose grows whenever he lies.
Pinocchio, incidentally, is possibly derived from the Italian pino (“pine”) and occhio (“eye”). In Pin, we have only the pine, and not the eye. Since the eyes are the windows to the soul, Pin’s lack of eyes (that is, real eyes for seeing) means “he” lacks a soul, he’s inanimate…not that the increasingly unstable Leon Linden (the adult version of whom is played by Hewlett) is willing to acknowledge this. Pin’s nose never grows because he never lies…which is because he never lives, of course.
Just try to get delusional Leon to face the facts, though.
Pin thus represents that border where life and death meet.
After the boys’ attempt to determine who or what the man in the window is, we go back fifteen years to find out how all of this started. Little Leon and Ursula (the adult version of whom is played by Preston) must demonstrate their knowledge of numbers before being sent to bed for the night. Their father, Dr. Frank Linden (O’Quinn) gives the younger sister the easier task, counting from one to ten, which she does correctly. Leon, however, must count backwards from one hundred by sevens. He does so correctly, until he says sixty-six instead of sixty-five.
As the little boy lies in bed, he does the backward count again. We hear him say the correct numbers again, but just when he’s about to say (presumably) sixty-five and thus correct his mistake, we go to the next scene and never know if he does it correctly this time. The point is that, in practicing the counting instead of just going to sleep, little Leon is showing us how preoccupied he is with pleasing Daddy by getting it right.
I defend the notion of the universality of the Oedipus complex, that one wants the love and exclusive attention of one parent, while feeling hostility towards the other, who is seen as a rival for the love of the first parent. The Oedipally-desired parent needn’t be the opposite sex one, though, and the love felt needn’t be sexual. Leon wants his father’s love; in point of fact, he hates his mother (Mantel), with her neurotic obsession with spotless cleanliness throughout the house, even to the point of having plastic covers on the furniture. Frank, on the other hand, though gentle, is nonetheless demanding with his bourgeois high standards, and thus he frustrates the boy’s wish to be worthy of Daddy’s love.
…and here is where Pin comes in.
Leon’s father has a voice that’s gentle enough, but still commanding of respect. Yet when Dr. Linden uses ventriloquism to do Pin’s voice in his office, while little Leon and Ursula are watching him treat a child patient, Pin’s voice sounds so much gentler, not at all intimidating, like a friend.
In a child’s imagination, the medical dummy is alive. Little Ursula will outgrow this soon enough. Why can’t Leon outgrow it? Though his father can be as stern with his commands as his mother is, Leon has much more respect for his father’s authority than that of his mother, because of his Oedipal feelings for Frank.
When Frank throws his voice so that Leon hears Pin ‘saying’ his father’s words, though Leon unconsciously understands that ventriloquism is being used (after all, by the time Leon grows up, he has learned how to throw his own voice to speak for Pin, while consciously in denial about his use of ventriloquism), he consciously imagines that Pin is speaking for himself. Dr. Linden’s ventriloquism is actually a projection of himself onto Pin, which appeals to Leon, for now the boy can have an approachable version of his Oedipally-desired father, a version that is his equal, a friend.
His Oedipal feelings for his father have thus been transferred onto Pin. This is why, when his parents die in the car crash, young adult Leon doesn’t shed any tears for his father, but is instead happy to rescue Pin from the wreck of the car. What’s even better is that he can now finally have Pin stay in the house with him and Ursula.
Before his parents’ death, though, other traumatic events occur in Leon’s childhood to cause him to loosen his grip on reality. He doesn’t keep any friends at school, since his tyrannical mother hates it when these friends dirty her house. While in his father’s office one day in the hopes of getting Pin to talk to him (Frank has ‘told’ Pin never to talk to anyone when he isn’t there), a nurse sneaks into the office to use the dummy’s…Pinis…to satisfy her, and hiding Leon is horrified to see her ‘raping’ his one and only friend. Since Leon has transferred his Oedipal feelings onto Pin, watching the nurse fuck the dummy is, for him, rather like the primal scene.
Because of traumas like these, Leon doesn’t like any outsiders to intrude on his tiny little world. Women generally repel him, so he is sexually repressed. He, as a young adult, doesn’t want to leave his little town to get his university education elsewhere, so when his father insists on it (right before the car crash), there’s great tension between Leon’s wish to stay near Pin, yet also be obedient to his father.
Leon may be sexually repressed, but pre-teen Ursula is already fascinated with the human anatomy, especially men’s. After she and Leon have been discovered with a pornographic magazine by her disgusted mother, their father decides it’s time to use Pin to teach them about sexuality and “the need” (Frank’s euphemism for sexual desire). He tells Leon to remove the towel from otherwise naked Pin to reveal the member that the boy saw the nurse defile, but he can’t do it; Ursula, on the other hand, is delighted to expose the Pinis.
As I said, Leon wants to restrict the people in his world to a minimum, but Ursula, by now a teen, wants a maximum of people in hers…men in particular. She quickly develops a reputation for promiscuity, which scandalizes him, and he beats one of her lovers. His anger goes beyond just him not wanting his sister to be seen as “a tramp”: he’s jealous of anyone outside contaminating the purity of his small world.
I think it’s helpful to understand Leon’s mind in terms of Heinz Kohut‘s conception of the bipolar self, one pole being based on idealizing a parental role model, and the other pole being based on someone who can act as a mirror of one’s grandiosity. For Leon, his father was the idealized parental imago, while Ursula is there to mirror his narcissism back to him. Without these two poles to give him a stable sense of psychological structure, Leon will fall apart and suffer fragmentation, a psychotic break with reality.
Since his father’s ideals are too lofty for him to attain, Leon transfers the object of his libidinal cravings from the doctor to Pin. Since Ursula must be a mirror to Leon’s narcissism, she cannot have any lovers, including her new love interest, Stan Fraker (Pyper-Ferguson), a handsome, charming athlete.
Of course, Leon’s grip on reality grows more and more fragile whenever Ursula, on the one hand, rejects Pin’s presence in their house, especially at the dinner table, dressed in their father’s clothes (a further identification of Pin with Frank), and with added fake skin and a wig–as when Norman Bates used taxidermy on his mother’s corpse–challenging his delusion that the dummy is alive; and on the other hand, seeing other men, which inflames Leon’s jealousy (It’s implied that he has repressed incestuous feelings for his beautiful younger sister.).
Since she rejects Pin and Leon’s established triangular relationship of her, it, and him, this means that he has two one-on-one relationships–one with Pin, and one with her. Both of them are meant to mirror his narcissism back to him; both are ideals that mustn’t traumatically disappoint him, which would lead to his fragmentation.
Leon is thus stuck in a doubly dyadic state of the Imaginary, for in transferring his cathexis from his father to Pin, and in despising his obsessively clean mother, Leon has foreclosed on the three-way relationship (i.e., Leon/mother/father) that leads to inclusion in society, which is of the mentally healthy Symbolic Order. This foreclosure leads to his psychosis. His parents’ death in the car accident only further cements his break with reality.
No one can intrude on Leon’s doubly dyadic world: not his Aunt Dorothy, who moves in with them and wants to put the plastic covers back on the furniture, thus bringing back his mother’s tyrannical rule by proxy; Leon takes advantage of his aunt’s weak heart by using Pin one night to scare her to death. Nor can Leon’s world be intruded on by Stan, who he fears is planning to put him in a mental institution so he can take away the house and family property with Ursula.
One night, when she is on a date with Stan, Leon, out of jealousy, arranges a date with Marsha, an attractive young woman because, apparently, he has “the need.” Actually, all of her attempts to arouse him fail, out of no fault of her own, though: he’s just that sexually repressed. He’s imagined that by dating and sleeping with her, he’s getting back at Ursula for being ‘unfaithful’ to him. Instead of sleeping with Marsha, though, he uses Pin to frighten her, for no one may come into his private world of himself, Pin, and his sister.
His only outlet for his repressed sexuality is in his perverse poetry, which narrates the many sexual conquests of its protagonist, the creepily-named “Testes.” His writing of this sexually potent character is thus a reaction formation against the presumed virginity that Leon must be privately embarrassed about, due to his revulsion from women. That “Testes” is thinking of raping his sister is something that both Stan and Ursula should be worried about.
Such a verbal expression of Leon’s repressed desires is hardly therapeutic, nor can it be legitimately called sublimation. It merely reinforces his fixations by an obsessive ruminating on them.
No, Leon’s use of language in his poetry in no way brings him into the healthy world of culture and society as understood in the Symbolic. He is trapped in the dyadic world of the Imaginary, and he is soon to be even more rigidly confined in the traumatizing, undifferentiated world of the Real.
Hints of his becoming one and the same as Pin have already appeared: in his growing catatonia, which is associated with schizophrenia (recall Ursula’s amateur diagnosis of him as “a paranoid schizophrenic”). When Marsha is nuzzling on his neck during their date, he’s as stiff as a board (as opposed to being ‘stiff’ the way a man normally is in such a situation), looking away from her in a fixed stare. Elsewhere, he sometimes sits across from Pin in imitation of the dummy’s exact posture–motionless, arms and legs wide apart. Leon is becoming a mirror of Pin, rather than vice versa.
Just as Norman Bates was “dangerously disturbed…ever since his father died,” leaving him in a dyadic relationship with his mother, then even more so after he killed her, used taxidermy on her corpse, dressed up like her, and spoke in her voice to sustain the illusion of her still being alive, so does Leon–after Ursula hacks Pin to pieces with an axe upon learning that Leon’s tried to kill Stan–give over his whole life to Pin.
Just as Norman was never all Norman, but often all Mother, so has Leon never been all Leon, but often all Pin…especially at the end of the movie, as with Norman in Psycho. This lack of differentiation between self and (imagined) other between Leon and Pin, is the traumatizing, undifferentiated world of the Real…and all Ursula can do now is humour the human dummy, in his catatonic, living death.
At least she is now able to escape from a dyadic world with Stan…Leon can’t even live in a dyadic world anymore. He is forever trapped at that cusp where life and death, animation and non-animation, meet.