‘The Slave & The Sorcerer’ – Gore-Filled ’80s Throwback Pays Tribute to ‘Beastmaster’ and ‘Deathstalker’

Horror

Sandor Stern’s ‘Pin’ is an unsung ‘80s classic that tells a traumatic tale of a broken family that turns an unhealthy coping mechanism into a totem of terror.

“Have you heard from Leon?”
“No.” 
“I miss him a great deal.”
“So do I.”

Horror’s “evil doll” sub-genre has never been more popular, but it’s been a lively area of terror for many decades now. There’s an instantly identifiable selling point to one of these stories where a mundane toy suddenly becomes a terrifying artifact. One of the more obscure entries in the evil doll sub-genre is 1988’s Pin, a disturbing tale of repressed pain, codependent family dynamics, and displaced identity that bears more in common with Psycho than Child’s Play. Pin, while refusing to limit itself to just one type of horror, delivers a memorable meditation on trauma that makes an even greater impact 35 years later. 

It’s common for the evil doll horror sub-genre to lean into the seemingly safe and friendly nature of its supposedly haunted items. Pin beautifully subverts this idea by presenting an anatomy doll in all of its unnerving glory just to remind the audience that life-size human anatomy dummies were a real, weird thing. There aren’t enough horror movies that celebrate this commonplace skinless relic and Pin has such cool confidence in its concept that it can just linger on stationary shots of Pin that are highly evocative. The closest cinematic analogue is the odd wooden totem from 1995’s The Fear, which is still a far cry from being the same.

The other natural direction that films with a frightening inanimate object take is the push and pull of whether this item is actually alive or a symptom of a psychological break. Pin does creative work in this department since it clearly telegraphs from the start that Pin isn’t a real thing, yet it exercises the idea of tulpas and the power of the mind. What works for Pin is that Leon creates such tension around the medical dummy that everyone can’t help but walk on eggshells around it as if it’s real. 

There are so many effective moments where characters are alone with Pin and there’s really nothing going on, yet they still can’t help but feel uneasy over the strength of Leon’s fabricated reality. These moments are arguably a lot more effective than someone thinking they saw Pin run around the corner or move his head. It turns into a purely psychological affair where the audience begins to fear and suspect Pin of supernatural behavior, just like Ursula and everyone else does. This paranoia is a crucial part of the tension that Pin creates and sustains throughout the movie. This would be lost through more overt tactics that might deliver in the moment, but ultimately detract from the movie’s greater themes.

Canadian horror movies aren’t afraid to tackle uncomfortable issues and put them front and center. Black Christmas, My Bloody Valentine, The Brood, and even Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II are all Canadian horror films from the 1970s and ’80s that predate Pin, yet are obsessed with the confrontation of the same taboos and social mores through death, guilt, and displaced emotions. Pin subjects the Linden family to a litany of issues, particularly when it comes to sexuality. Leon is incredibly repressed on the subject, while Ursula leans into sexual promiscuity that seems to evoke incestuous undertones from her jealous brother. Ursula’s actions result in an unwanted pregnancy that her father–and Pin–ultimately gain control over. Ursula has an abortion, but it’s carried out by her father, while Pin “watches,” so these judgmental figures will always hold power against her.

Siblings can be fascinating central figures in a horror movie and Pin doesn’t waste this opportunity to show how both Leon and Ursula are uniquely troubled. Pin is a substantial entry when it comes to horror movies that focus on a pair of traumatized siblings who head down extreme paths as Ursula gets dragged down by the more maladapted, codependent Leon. Pin is also an effective reflection of the decade’s societal pressures when it comes to legacy and the desire to veer away from generations of cyclical behavior in favor of breaking free and finding a new identity — a real identity — through this experience. There is no shortage of horror films that obsess over toxic lineage, but Pin breaks fresh ground with how this inanimate object imbues the father’s personality following his death because Leon doesn’t know how to otherwise go on. It’s his dad’s memory that he misses, but he’s unable to freely admit this while he instead conflates his father with Pin and begins to turn to it for guidance and life lessons as normalcy decays around them.

David Hewlett and Cynthia Preston do a lot of the heavy lifting here as Leon and Ursula, but the film’s first act is tense, terrifying material because of Terry O’Quinn’s clinical performance as their father. O’Quinn delivers a creepy, detached performance here that occasionally gets big, but never feels too over the top. It’s a performance that’s a welcome reminder that O’Quinn doesn’t get nearly enough credit as a horror icon between his work here, the first two Stepfather movies, Silver Bullet, Amityville: A New Generation, Millennium, and more. Pin’s personality continues to shift post Dr. Linden’s passing and the character’s squeaky whisper of a voice comes from none other than Jonathan Banks. At the time, Banks’ casting was hardly remarkable, but there’s now a whole lot more value in seeing the crotchety crime cleaner from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul provide the odd voice for this disturbing doll. It’s an inspired decision instead of simply turning to O’Quinn for Pin’s voiceover work. It fits with the rest of the film’s style, which opts for creepy over gory.

Pin is such a success that it’s surprising that Sandor Stern doesn’t otherwise amount to much as a horror director other than the forgettable Amityville: The Evil Escapes sequel that followed Pin (although he’s also responsible for the original’s exceptional script). More than anything else, Stern has found his niche in Canadian television procedurals, but it’s a shame that he wasn’t as interested in carrying over the frightening magic of Pin into other horror movies. If nothing else, it leaves Pin feeling all the more special and fitting of the movie’s perennial cult status. It’s not surprising to hear that the film briefly found a lot of new fans last year through TikTok clips that showcased the film’s odd brilliance. It’s the perfect movie to benefit from being put on a pedestal in an installment of Shudder’s The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs. Pin isn’t currently on a proper streaming service, but the fact that several users have uploaded it in its entirety to YouTube speaks to the cult film’s dedicated fandom.

Pin also stands out for its bold, tragic ending where Leon is worse off than ever before, but he’s so lost in delusion that it masquerades as bliss. It’s deeply sad, especially since in a “there can only be one” style scenario that it’s ultimately Pin’s personality that wins out, not Leon. This psyche-shattering finale is reminiscent of Psycho, Pinocchio’s Revenge, or even Puppet Master 2, albeit even more heartbreaking. Anthony Hopkins’ Magic is perhaps a closer comparison, yet that’s still a story about a singular character who gets deluded by fame and ego while Pin is a two-handed coming of age story about trauma and internalized expectations. It cannot be stressed enough how exceptional Hewlett and Preston are in their roles (as well as John Pyper-Ferguson as Ursula’s boyfriend, Stan). There’s a rawness to their performances that’s just captivating.

Additionally, in Pin’s case, Leon’s pain infects the entire family and not just the person who’s actually psychologically conflicted. Leon’s sister, Ursula, is just as confined to an unhappy ending. She’s more saddled to Leon than ever before as he adapts to this new state. Now, seemingly beyond any point of rehabilitation, this is Leon’s life until he passes on. He’s unfortunately become a doll that’s now impossible to throw away. The way in which this ending is teased from the start, only to reveal that it’s actually Leon in the present that the children are afraid of rather than the original Pin, is beautifully handled. The film’s cryptic beginning doesn’t feel special in the moment so that when it does return at the end there’s some welcome, depressing, symmetry that bookends the movie. 

Pin remains in a class of its own, even more so now 35 years after its original release, as few psychological horror films have tapped into the same heightened, unflinching eccentricities with the same curiosity and nuance. Pin is a delightful example of a story that doesn’t just satisfyingly deliver on its twisted premise, but it pushes things so much further than one would expect. Sandor Stern has made the absolute best movie possible about familial trauma and an unhealthy relationship with an anatomy dummy. It’s a horror movie that truly needs to be seen to be believed. 

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