Ghost in the Machine (1993)

Not everything that comes out first is the best.  Take Hydrox cookies, for instance.  They were the first to take two chocolate-ish disks and put some sugary corn starch between them.  As a kid, though, did anyone really get excited when they saw a package of Hydrox cookies?  Just the name sounds like something you would give someone for an old-time disease.  Oreos, which were a Johnny-come-lately and a copy of Hydrox, were where it was at. 

Ghost in the Machine does the good old Hollywood job of taking a popular movie and saying, "What if we combine it with something else?"  In this case, it was The Lawnmower Man, which had come out the year before.  Although based on a short story by Stephen King about a Greek god that offers lawn service (with the usual downer ending), director and writer Brett Leonard figured that the only thing really needed was the name and made a popular thriller based on virtual reality - the thing that was supposed to be a big thing 30 years ago and still barely functions for the niche market it serves today. 

For all its early computer effects and VR sex and whatnot, The Lawnmower Man was really not that good of a movie.  Neither was a movie from 1989, made by Wes Craven, called Shocker.  In The Lawnmower Man the bad guy figures out how to manipulated virtual reality, while in Shocker a serial killer's soul enters the power grid when he is executed by electric chair.  Quality aside, both movies made decent enough money that I am sure the pitch of combining the two went over well, as Ghost in the Machine made its way to theaters in 1993. 

Karl Hopkins (Ted Marcoux) is a serial killer that works in a computer store and steals address books, using them to plan out who to murder.  On his way to one of his "appointments" he loses control and goes off the road during a storm.  Taken to the hospital before anyone knows who he is, an electrical surge allows his soul to be transferred from an MRI scan into the servers of DataNet, a company that collects customer information for mailing lists.

The last address book Hopkins got his hands on was that of Terry Munroe (Karen Allen), and he decides to pick up where he left off, killing Munroe's friends and threatening her son Josh (Wil Horneff).  The strange activity on DataNet's servers catches the attention of Bram Walker (Chris Mulkey), their I.T. guy who just happens to also be a famous hacker.  With his help Terry and Josh hope to finally put the Address Book Killer out of commission.

While objectively not a great film, and while it didn't make nearly the amount of money of the movies it was trying to rip off, Ghost in the Machine managed to be better than either of them.  Hopkins himself is barely seen through most of it, with some of the death scenes (particularly the microwave one, unreal as it may be) quite creative.  If anything this feels more like Final Destination rather than a typical cheap early '90s slasher.  Director Rachel Talalay had made her debut with Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare, objectively one of the worst of the Nightmare on Elm Street films, but it made money and so she got to do this one, written by William Davies and William Osbourne.  Happily, despite the abundance of computer effects, this wasn't turned into a gimmicky 3-D feature like Freddy's Dead

In fact, Talalay does a great job bringing some style and fun to this movie, which needs it because the plot is so ridiculous.  The fact that the actors take it seriously while parts of it are played for obvious intentional laughs is wonderful.  It helps that Karen Allen, Chris Mulkey and Wil Horneff are all good in their parts, so it never feels like amateur hour.  The one thing that is a letdown is the killer.  It has nothing to do with Ted Marcoux, but Hopkins himself is just not that interesting.  What he does with manipulating computers and electronics is, but it was a good idea to make him absent in physical form throughout a good amount of the film.  As much as Mitch Pileggi overacted in Shocker he was at least memorable. 

The main barrier to enjoying this movie is that it seems like neither of the Williams that wrote this had ever touched a computer.  We get the obligatory virtual reality scene (which, except for superimposing the kids' faces on the avatars, looks about like VR really did at the time, minus the tunnel vision those visors had) as well as animations of Hopkins making his way through computer and electrical systems. However, the whole thing is fanciful.  A number of scenes shows electrical wires carrying the data to and from computers, when in 1993 any hookup involved a telephone line and a modem connection.  Given the dialup speeds at the time some of the pornographic animations Josh is trying to watch would have been hours to even get a still picture, much less a moving one.  Any serial killer trying to get at them through their computer would have had to do so at 600 BAUD. 

What all this adds up to is a guilty pleasure that is quite enjoyable if not taken too seriously.  Once again, kind of like an Oreo cookie.  It's not the best cookie around, but they do satisfy a craving every now and again.  And, even all these years later, if I get that craving the last thing I want is finding out my only option is Hydrox.  I wouldn't say it's a rule to go by, but sometimes the ripoff is so much better than the original.

Ghost in the Machine (1993)
Time: 95 minutes
Starring: Karen Allen, Chris Mulkey, Wil Horneff, Ted Marcoux
Director: Rachel Talalay



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