‘Psychological horror’ (aka ‘psychological thriller with supernatural overtones’) may be among the most overused phrases from the general film critic’s vocabulary. More often than not it gets used in an elitist fashion so as to elevate a particular piece above the percieved confines of the genre that it’s so clearly a part of. From Silence of the Lambs to The Shining it has been regularly used by non-genre critics to illuminate diamonds in the rough, becoming almost synonymous with ‘good’ horror films. Ultimately though, the all too vague phrase is almost entirely meaningless. Does it apply to movies designed to get under the audience’s skin? That could be said about any genre piece – most horror films are, by their nature, psychological. Ok, so maybe it is a type of film that extrapolates fear from a character’s warped frame of mind? You know, like Jacob’s Ladder or Black Swan? Welcome to any genre piece that has a three dimensional character. In both of these movies the fear takes the form of a phyiscal monster; whether it is material or not isn’t as important as the fact that we still see them, and experience them chasing said characters around the room in a way not too different from a dozen other – though admittedly maybe less subtle – horrors. Maybe we could come to a compromise and say it’s all about movies wherein a protagonist creates their own sense of reality, though I would argue that the differences between Norman Bates killing because his mother tells him to, and Jason doing it, are largely in the pacing. Regardless, the reason I am spending so long emphasising this point is that Pin is one of few horror films I have no issues with giving the label; and I do not say that lightly.
What makes this film the exception is that the characters actually do very little that could actually be considered creepy. The body count is significantly lower than Psycho, there is less gore than Se7en and the supposed villain of the piece entirely immobile and lifeless all the way through it. Despite this, the film is entirely disturbing, even though all that is really left to scare you are the characters’ thought processes. As with the best seller, by Andrew Neiderman, Pin’s focal point is a dysfunctional family that puts celebrity led reality TV shows to shame. While Mum is an overly-controlling neat freak, wait til you meet dad. Played to great effect by Terry O’Quinn, who also struck horror gold in The Stepfather, Mr Linden is more than a little off kilter. Indeed, in his fairly brief time on screen we see him speaking to his kids through a dummy (more on that later), and recommending his son stays present to watch whilst he performs an abortion procedure for his own daughter. Given this environment, it is no surprise that the children (Leon and Ursula) grow up a little weird. While both show a disturbing lack of emotion when faced with the absence of their parents (for reasons I would not want to spoil here) Leon comes off worst, experiencing a sharp downward spiral in to complete paranoid schizophrenia that happens under the watchful, but ultimately motionless, eyes of Pin whom he projects his needs for paternal love on to.
Pin is a life-sized medical mannequin that first gets used to teach life lessons by the ventriloquist father who he gradually goes on to replace. Ursula knows Pin’s not real, but Leon never gets to this conclusion, regarding Pin as a best friend and throughout the film, adopting his voice like an alter-ego. Across the remainder of the running time, Pin is integrated in to the family, dressed in their clothes and given a place at the dinner table. Throughout this downward spiral, Leon becomes increasingly protective of Ursula throughout her maturity and shows an unnerving jealousy of her sex sexual partners. How far this goes, I will leave you to find out. Suffice to say that the beating heart of the film becomes a teenage girl coping with adolescence and sexuality while desperately trying to standby her older brother who is psychologically deteriorating. She loves him dearly, but is also terrified of him and his obsessive behaviour.
The brother and sister relationship is really the core of the film. Even during the scenes of them as kids it becomes slightly suspect, with them discussing her breasts and if they get ‘the need’ (i.e. horny), but a major strength of Pin is that the incestuous subtext remains just that. There are no gratuitous scenes of him watching her in the shower here, tugging one off over her image or waking up in bed beside her. Instead the closest that we come to an explicit declaration of inappropriate feelings is a poem Leon reads out in front Ursula and her new boyfriend, in a scene as unsettling as it is awkward in a darkly comical way. Such commitment to not embracing the obvious means that Leon avoids becoming the stock character he easily could have been, and the creepy factor avoids falling in to scandal.
As with my review for The Big Finish I appreciate that I’ve probably not done a good job of making this sound like a good film, but give it a chance and you won’t be disappointed. As with The Big Finish, any attempts to really explain what happens in the film would result in ruining the experience, but it does a similarly good job of making you feel for characters with major flaws that become their own downfalls. Pin is unlike any other horror film you’ll see, and all the better for it. Sure, it’s not perfect. There’s a fairly misjudged sex scene towards the beginning of the film, some of the acting is highly questionable, and considering the actors cast the characters ages border on parody. But that aside, delve in for a creepy and rewarding experience. That, and watching it also means you can add a proper entry to your ‘psychological horrors’ lists.