Friday, May 15, 2009

Ghost in the Machine (1993)

Society as a whole always has at least a small level of discomfort with new technology. For the entrenched forces of the old guard, the shifting paradigms can often mean extinction *cough*record companies*cough*, while grandma and grandpa sixpack learn to live with articles in the print media about things like "The Tweeter," which they are resigned to never being able to fully understand. This public vexation makes an easy target for relevancy seeking schlock purveyors, who are more than happy to jump on the nightly news bandwagon. The Internet was a technological sea change of particular immensity, and since its inner workings continue to be poorly understood by the vast majority of users, it makes for rich and frightening subject matter. Postcyberpunk media, such as Serial Experiments Lain (probably the only non-feature anime that I can stand) explore the 'net's metaphysical aspects, while terrible Hollywood "thrillers" (The Net & Untraceable) prey on the fears of credulous old people with wide eyed tales of hackers and viruses. In the horror world, where plausibility appears to be even less necessary, the jargon of computing is merely invoked as a mystic spell that lets the screenwriters the do whatever the hell they feel like. (FeardotCom for example.)1993's Ghost in the Machine (also known by the generitastic title: Deadly Terror) has a decent excuse for its Ted Stevens (R-AK) level of understanding the world wide web: Windows 3.1 was brand spanking new when they started production. Unfortunately, the film doesn't have such an excuse is for its similarly poor understanding of microwaves, electricity, magnetism, logic, and reality itself; all of which had been thoroughly researched prior to the early '90s.
Directed by Rachel Talalay, another veteran of of the Nightmare on Elmstreet franchise, Ghost in the Machine, tells the tale of yet another serial murderer who loses his corporeal form but gains vast and ill-defined electrical powers. In fact, I think this might have been the movie I thought I was going to see when I first popped in the previously reviewed Shocker.
Karen Adams of Animal House & Indiana Jones fame is a hard working mom with a flannel wearing tool of a son who runs confidence games with his best friend, the kid from Michael Jackson's Moonwalker. (And pretty much everything else in the '9os that was in need of a cute black kid.)
Meanwhile, the town is being stalked by a vicious serial murderer known as the "Address Book Killer" because of his tendency to steal address books and then slaughter everyone listed inside. You would think that this would make him relatively easy to catch (just figure out whose book he's got and make with the stake-outs) but apparently the police in this town are total incompetents. He works in a local computer store, where our heroine accidentally forgets her unwieldy address book after receiving a demonstration on how to digitize the information. His next stop: murdertown.
Before the killer can arrive at his chosen victim's home, a vicious thunderstorm joins forces with oncoming traffic to run him off the road. As he is a total psycho, his natural reaction to careening upside down through a graveyard to certain doom is amused chuckling. (Don't knock it until you've tried it.) Upon being rescued by paramedics and loaded into an MRI, the hospital is struck by lightning, causing a massive power surge and, obviously, uploading the killer's consciousness into the electrical grid. How come pleasant, sane people never become disembodied energy beings in freak accidents? It only seems to happen to psycho killers.

After a quick trip into some sort of "mainframe" company to gather information on his target, strange things begin happening in the heroine's life. She gets a big pile of frilly undies delivered to her office, her phoneline starts dialing 900 numbers nonstop, and an ATM both refuses to dispense her cash then tries to smash her hand.

A white knight shows up in the form of the mainframe company's newest hire, an underemployed super-hacker who is searching for the person who keeps assaulting the system in search of info on Karen Adams, but as that person is a disembodied force roaming the internet (and by "internet" the movie means anything involving electricity) he hasn't had much luck.
O noze! Teh Haxxors!

The killing finally starts when he invades the first address on his list, the heroine's boss. He invades the guy's computer via the phone line, then jumps into the house's wiring in order to take over the microwave, knocking the door off and spreading dangerous microwaves all through the kitchen. It is actually a pretty spectacular sequence, with a non CG flythrough of the house's wiring, exploding bananas, and some halfway decent gore. Try to ignore the fact that windmills microwaves do not work that way (goodnight) and it is downright entertaining.
Now the movie can finally dispense with messy plot details and get to the point: killing people with appliances. Since the killer has few lines, minimal screentime, and almost no personality, it has much more in common with Final Destination than Shocker. (Though with more fake-outs and less Rube Goldberg style to the deaths.)The family dog is attacked by a VCR and drowned in the pool, while the annoying kid barely escapes a similar fate. He is also accosted by the killer while playing the world's slowest paced virtual reality deathmatch at the mall. It's a game with the hyper advanced technology to map the players' facial expressions onto their avatars in real time, and yet it can't muster a polygon count to rival a Playstation-1 launch title. In addition to not being able to shoot their laser pistols for shit, the VR characters move as though the crude polyhedrons pretending to be their limbs were filled with lead and cement, and the players controlling them constantly lose site of each other while standing perfectly still a few feet away from each other. In fact, their idea of "cover" is standing in the relative vicinity of any environment geometry, which leads me to believe that this game is actually really fun and the kids are just awful at it.
The "virtual reality" scene is also notable as it is the only time that the killer manifests in a recognizably human form, even if it is just for a quick digital Large Marge moment.Next up in the address book: loser boyfriend. He happens to work at a automobile crash testing facility, so their are lots of dangerous objects for the killer to play with. After an eternity of 'tension' over whether or not this annoying, extremely minor character will get smooshed against the wall that he really shouldn't be standing in front of, (Isn't that what all the yellow and black striped danger tape is supposed to indicate? Don't fucking stand here.) he climbs into the car and the cyber-killer makes his move. Turns out the car has a 10 billion star front impact rating, because he isn't even bruised after hitting the wall while laying across the dummies' laps with his feet dangling out of the driver side door. This obviously frustrates the malevolent electro-spirit, because then it just skips the clever stuff and uses a bathroom hand-drier to engulf the poor bastard in flames.
Why don't you just paint a target on your ass?
Never mind.

Luckily this movie has a small supporting cast, because at this pace it would take Heaven's Gate runtime to take out too many more people. The sexy babysitter is next, but first she has to get smooth-talked bribed into doing the worlds worst strip-tease for a pair of prepubescents. I guess the editor wanted to show off his porno-montage cutting skills.Sexy Babysitter? Check. Pillow to hide your boner? Check and check.

The payoff? 10 frames of cleavage. It nearly makes the boys' heads explode, but is a pretty massive disappointment from a horror movie audience's perspective. Meanwhile, the stove makes a failed attempt at killing the baby and absolutely nothing happens with the vicious looking garbage disposal. The dishwasher, on the other hand, is one mean son of a bitch. It floods the kitchen in order to spectacularly electrocute her. Either that or she is a Highlander.
The cops aren't much help with fighting cyber-ghosts, so our heroes stake out the next target's house and disconnect everything electrical. When the villain assaults the house, he finds all the outlets covered in duct tape, which results in this:
Warning: Duct Tape Detected!

What the hell system is he in? Why does this movie treat the internet and the electrical grid as though they were interchangeable? It's 2009 and we still don't have the web over powerlines. (Thank you very much ham radio jerks.) Thwarted, the killer calls every trigger happy police officer in the city over for a "domestic disturbance" so they can shoot up the place when he blows a nearby transformer.Everybody survives the Bonny & Clyde moment and apparently give their statements to the cops in record time, because one scene later they are back home and formulating a plan to take their tormentor out with the help of the local particle accelerator. They use a computer virus to... um... force him into the real world... somehow.

It's the final countdown showdown, as our heroes attempt to trap the killer in the accelerator's magnetic field. He is temporarily held off via electrocution, which turns him into a stick figure then explodes him. (Seriously? They electrocuted an electricity based being? Isn't that like fighting fire with fire?) Electricity, bitch slapping, and bullets can only slow down a serial killer made up of crazy floating particles, but fortunately they save one last shot for shattering the magnet proof glass protecting the fiend from his destruction.
That's a pretty poor understanding of magnetism, but I can't say I'm surprised. After all, this is a film that could simply claim that magnets scrambled the villain, but instead has the magnets suck him into a particle accelerator which then smashes "his atoms into oblivion," when, as a being composed of energy, he would only have electrons, not entire atoms. Also, a particle accelerator would only smash one atom, not all of them. Also also, when you shoot out a window of a magical magnetism proof room, the magnetism seeping in does not make wind noises. Apparently these people don't know the difference between magnets and air pressure.After watching Ghost in the Machine twice, I really want to take back some of the mean things I said about Shocker. It perfectly addresses nearly all my complaints with the latter film, yet somehow manages to be significantly worse in the process. The killer doesn't start jumping into people's bodies for no reason, nobody has unexplained psychic links with him, there are no magic maguffins or spirit girlfriends, and the film cuts right to the chase instead of spending over a third of its runtime establishing a convoluted backstory. The only major issue that both films share is a complete disinterest in logic, physics, and establishing firm rules for their antagonists. Shocker could at least brush these issues aside with lazy references to Satanism, Ghost's only excuse is that it assumed the audience was even stupider than itself. Plus, Shocker has Mitch Pileggi as a snarling cue-ball in a goofy costume; the address book killer, to contrast, is almost completely devoid of personality even before he loses his corporeal form.There are two main reasons for actually sitting down and watching Ghost in the Machine: (being legitimately entertained is not one of them) you are drunk and want to make fun of the filmmaker's poor grasp of how computers and electricity work, or you are drunk and want to make fun of how dated the movie is. Actually, it's a little difficult to separate the two reasons; 1993 (during which this movie most definitely takes place) was the freaking stone age of the internet. You can't blame them too much for having a character say "who has my number?" upon being alerted that he has e-mail. When he opens the e-mail and begins chatting in real time with the sender, however, you start to wonder if anyone involved in the movie had ever actually used e-mail before. (In all fairness, FeardotCom treated the net with similar cluelessness nearly a decade later.)

I'm not even going to get started on the guy who hits his monitor to keep the computer from freezing, or how when the killer attempts to enter said computer, he rams the screen from inside, making glass clanking noises.
Characters in these sorts of movies never use the same software as your or I, probably due to licensing issues of some sort. Instead they have custom designed fake software with elaborate graphics that would certainly get annoying as hell with regular use. Instead of password screens being simple affairs, they get full screen animations of cartoon guard dogs that lick the screen when the proper code is entered and probably consume the vast majority of system resources.
Plus, who needs internet porn when there are sexy robo-girl programs that you can simply find by messing around on your computer long enough. That shit's pre-loaded.
If making fun of technological inaccuracies is not your bag, then you'll have to watch the film for its anthropological value. 1993 was a strange and terrible time, and this movie couldn't be more from that particular year if it had a giant neon calendar strapped to it. Everyone wears hip, modern fashions (bowl cuts, flannels, & porkpie hats!), the cops mention "LA" as their excuse for opening fire on a residential home at the drop of a hat, there is a line about junk mail being more irritating than Howard Stern, the soundtrack is all contemporaries of MC Hammer, the production design is firmly rooted in the era, and the TV show "In Living Color" gets a prominent cameo.If you are computer geek, and your head hasn't exploded over the rampant innacuracies, then you'll certainly enjoy seeing all the signs and posters in the background of the computer store scenes. You can make a game of it: pause and see how many companies with visible logos are still around today.

"I call her butt an onion, because it makes me cry." - An actual line of dialog from this awful movie. Someone somewhere thought that was good writing.


  1. "Someone, somewhere thought that was good writing"

    cough coughwayansbrotherscough cough!

    Also I was just in a Computer Renaissance about two weeks ago, and it looked JUST LIKE that computer store. Not a thing had changed.

    Also Also, I just recently saw an episode of Simon and SImon that has some relevance to this (episode 3, season1 "Trapdoors"). I will try to relate the important aspects to you when I have some time.

  2. If you mention your Grandma's Tweeter one more time…

  3. If you mention your Grandma's Tweeter one more time…the first on-screen toilet was in Psycho