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Portrait of a Family in the Throes of Freudian Panic

Pin (1988)

An electrifying story of deadly obsessions and poisonous pedagogy, Pin captures perfectly the dread and unease of '80s American suburbia.


Publisher: Pocket
Author: Andrew Neiderman
Year: 1981-04


Director: Sandor Stern
Cast: David Hewlett, Cynthia Preston, Terry O'Quinn
Year: 1988

A strange decade of murky sentience, the ‘80s produced some of the most outlandish works in both literature and film of the 20th century. A chasm that seemed to widen with every passing year until the unfortunate emergence of yuppie culture, the cultural gap between the fringe arts and socially acceptable entertainment fodder remained an interstitial space of kitchen-sink drama from which dark inspiration grew. Sewn into the fabric of political uprising and traditional family values of American middleclass society were the darker threads of a burgeoning anxiety, perhaps spurned by the ideologies (and idealisms) of this propagating culture. If the '90s were characteristic of the wounds inflicted by the botched familial structures from the preceding decade, then the '80s were arguably a time that brought much of the standard-of-living angst into fruition.

It's perhaps not surprising, then, that such pervading troubles amongst domestic home life would prove fertile ground for the imaginations of writers and filmmakers alike, who envisioned the family unit as an obvious foundation for the horror story. Consider Andrew Neiderman’s 1981 novel Pin, a horrific tale of parental corruption amongst middle-class teens in an idyllic, whitewashed suburbia. Preying on the fears of a gentrified ‘80s America, Neiderman disrupts the sense of heavenly calm with the poisonous effects of family enmeshment. Pin, the story of a young man’s disturbing obsession with a medical dummy, at once ridicules the counterculture of independent youth and reproves the routines of traditional middleclass values; in Pin, the author creates an antihero solely invented as the progeny-antithesis that wreaks havoc upon the nuclear family.

The story centres on Leon, a studious though socially awkward teen who lives with his timid and curious younger sister Ursula and his ultra-conservative parents. Leon’s father is a coldly aloof family doctor who treats his children with the same reserved detachment that he does his patients. Leon’s mother is an obsessive compulsive clean-freak, a housewife given to daily tasks which emotionally extricates her from the rest of the family. Since brother and sister have a fairly limited interaction with the world outside their restrictive family unit, they are both given to whims and fantasy.

Both Leon and his sister spend much of their time at their father’s clinic. In teaching his children about the nature of sexual practices, their doctor father uses an anatomically correct medical dummy, which he calls “Pin”, to communicate information to Leon and Ursula. Their father employs the trick of throwing his voice to make it appear as though Pin is talking, in order to discuss the finer points of the human body. Ursula eventually sees through this trick; Leon does not. Their frequent visits to their father’s clinic prove to be the instigating factor which will trigger Leon’s underlying psychosis.

Pin, the synergistic compound of long-held beliefs and anxieties, soon becomes the strange elemental force in an already dysfunctional family on the brink of ruin. It isn’t long before Leon adopts Pin as a personal confidant to whom he unburdens his darkest truths. Ursula is along for the mental hell-ride, engaging with Leon and Pin for as long as her adolescent naivety will hold out. Unbeknownst to his father, Leon makes regular trips to the clinic to spend time with his one and only friend.

Neiderman’s neo-gothic thriller probes teenage anxieties deeply while positioned at a guarded distance. Between Leon (who narrates) and Ursula, we have a curious parallel of emotional dynamics and psychological inferences that threaten to overlap at any moment. When Leon’s obsession with Pin begins to overwhelm Ursula (who, up until a point, still believes Leon’s behaviour is simply the overextension of a childhood game), her attempts at finding reason within his pathologies are rebuffed by her brother’s increasing hysteria.

When Leon and Ursula’s parents die in a freak car accident (it's subtly proposed that Leon somehow willed the accident through Pin’s suggestive powers), the obsessive and possessive behaviours shift into overdrive. Now supplanted as both the maternal and paternal force within the household, Pin becomes the embodiment of all repressed desires and cruelties that the children bear, later to be inflicted upon those who unwittingly intervene in this new family circuit.

Though Neiderman has reportedly denied that the story explores the uneasy realms of incestuous relationships, there are too many moments of telling behaviours throughout that would suggest otherwise. In a particularly disturbing and profoundly eerie scene, Leon and Ursula impel one another in their frustrated desires to use Pin as a tool to demonstrate their sexual needs. Leon mounts the dummy upon Ursula, laid naked upon her back, and in strangely vicarious movements, secures a morbidly sexual communion with his sister. Between them, Pin, fitted with anatomically correct genitals, is the body of projected needs and desires, upholding and nurturing an “acceptable” form of release. Sometime much later, following their parents’ death, Ursula takes up her first boyfriend, which intensifies Leon’s sexual frustrations.

At once a darkly humorous and cruel defiling of the functional family unit, Neiderman makes successive motions in deconstructing the pedagogical systems of the social classes. Both Leon and Ursula manage to hide beneath the shelter of middleclass doctrines, the ideologies of such culture codes religiously practiced by the surrounding township. Slowly, these practices are somewhat revealed for the ruse they sometimes prove to be, the two teens exposing, and thus acting upon, the naked inner impulses left untamed by their conformist rearing. Pin, the half-way human initiator of such impulses, insidiously and silently proves that Leon’s and Ursula’s darkest recesses undoubtedly hold the very force that give the medical dummy its eerily human and transcendental power.

The oedipal death-cycles which power the household relationships and the deadly symbiosis which binds brother and sister under the force of an inanimate object seemingly reflect (albeit distortedly) a fey view of suburban rituals; everyone has an unquestioned function of which the domestic world they inhabit depends upon. Fittingly, the movements in domestic life culture reproduced in the novel typify the behaviours internalized by the preceding generations; Leon’s parents are two pedagogical figures who leave behind an ill-omened void that their two children are fated to fill. Like an ascendancy of death, Pin, a plastic, unfeeling constituent, is the lethal conductor positioned between two bodies sentenced to a life of congenital, psychic hell; the only voice of reason here is the one that anticipates the destruction of birthright and lineage.

If Neiderman successfully manages a scope which adeptly explores the secreted fears and traumas of family life, filmmaker Sandor Stern’s cinematic reading of the material leaves much by the wayside in its examinations on suburban middleclass life. Released in 1988, the novel’s film version floundered at the box office. Where Neiderman’s story probes the delta waves of subconscious desires, Stern’s more pragmatic approach skirts many of the danger zones found in the source material.

Opting for the cool gloss of neo-noir, the film sets up Leon and Ursula as the protagonist-companions of which certain plot devices are designed to wedge them apart. As with most film-noir, Stern favours a far more subdued approach, positioning much of the psychological musings on what the actions in the film intimate. And while it allows generous room for conjecture, this approach also shies away from the more alarming facets of the story.

The construction of Stern’s film suggests restraint by way of studio-forced restriction and not the sublimation inherent in Neiderman’s novel. There’s an almost distasteful sidestepping of precarious subject matter, which renders much of the film transparent, removing ample amounts of the subversion that explored the sexual and family dynamics of the novel so deeply. Stern seems to position the medical dummy just somewhat outside of the inextricable bonds between brother and sister, reducing Pin to a mere and silent observer of the surrounding action. Since much of Neiderman’s narrative deals with Leon’s personality disorder and his relationship with Pin (a reflection of his suspected schizophrenia), there is thus a sly, subtle traversing of inner dialogues within the intradiegetic narrative. This doesn’t especially translate well onto the screen and, reasonably, Stern opts to reconfigure some of the original dynamics in order to follow cinematic logic.

By the filmmaker’s own admission, there was much studio interference. Studio execs, who believed they were being delivered a horror film, misunderstood the subtler ideas within the story. At the height of the teen horror craze during the '80s, there was an understandable cash-grab for the home video market which churned out cheap, lazy slasher flicks by the dozens. Watching the film, one clearly sees the struggles in which Stern works to assert the source material’s thematic scheme while counterbalancing it with horror-story elements.

The scene of Leon’s, Ursula’s and Pin’s sexual tryst is cowardly circumvented in an obvious, studio cop-out (the sexual act takes place between the dummy and a nurse on duty, with a young Leon watching from the shadows). This nervous evasion of the topic of incest only helps to obscure the themes of family enmeshment, essentially the heart of the story. Clumsier attempts to fashion a horror story (Stern maintains that this film was intended as a psychological thriller) can be found in the failed stylistic efforts of chase scenes, slow-motion attacks and sequences soundtracked with doom-laden music – elements which often lend themselves to the horror genre, but do not add up to anything much here.

If the structural elements of the film are too weak to carry the weight of the narrative’s subject matter, then the emotional readings given by the lead, at the very least, allow for a firm grasp of the story’s more internalized logic. Played by David Hewlett (a Canadian actor known mostly for his work in sci-fi film and television), Leon’s filmic counterpart espouses a certain vulnerability that precipitates the character’s underlying rage. Hewlett allows for a cautious search of emotion, a certain feeling or expression of words, carefully measured before every paroxysmal eruption. Onscreen, Leon is rendered as a thin-skinned though calculating sociopath, a young man refusing entry into adulthood at the behest of the outside world. Though much of his scenes are limited to those with the sister and Pin, Hewlett manages a restrictive field of manic energy that perfectly realizes the original intentions of Neiderman’s novel. What little there is of the film’s structural design is saved by a thoughtful performance.

Pin, in both its novel and cinematic form, faded into obscurity, as did many works associated with the culture of middleclass malaise, which was tantamount to the first half of the ‘80s. The dawning of the yuppie age firmly placed Pin’s 1988 film adaptation on ice; adolescent nihilism was superseded by the then-trendier notions of living beyond one’s means and picket fence life, resulting in such films as 1987’s Wall Street, and TV shows like thirtysomething. But Neiderman’s dark, mesmeric novel captured a certain sentiment of an era like no other work, and his bewitching portrait of a family in the throes of Freudian panic still conjures the haunted air of suburban malaise to this day.

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