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‘Ghost in the Machine’

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 30, 1993


Rachel Talalay
Karen Allen;
Chris Mulkey;
Ken Thorley
Under 17 restricted

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What happens when the soul of a serial killer finds itself stranded on the information highway? That's the promising premise of "Ghost in the Machine," one that is, unfortunately, ineptly explored by director Rachel Talalay ("Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare"). The film has a few moments of inventive computer-animation and virtual reality play, but it's no "Lawnmower Man."

After kicking off with a from-a-distance mass murder (gore is low priority), this "Ghost" slips into its situation somewhat clumsily: Computer repairman Karl (Ted Marcoux) spins his car out during a driving rainstorm, and as he crashes down a hillside, his ecstatic giggles suggest he may not be well. In fact he's the "Address Book Killer," known for wiping out everyone listed in stolen address books ("Wow, that's scary stuff," says a droll newscaster). In the emergency room, Karl dies while stuck in the CAT scanner, but not before his soul is bounced by a storm-related electrical surge into the mainframe computer.

Once there, Karl the Virus fixates on one last, freshly stolen address book, which belongs to a single mom, Terry (Karen Allen). As her acquaintances start getting knocked off through electrical trickery -- one is microwaved, another gets blown away by a restroom hand-dryer -- Terry starts worrying about herself and her 13-year-old computer-literate but typically uncommunicative son, Josh (Wil Horneff).

Typing to the rescue: Bram (Chris Mulkey), once a renegade hacker but now gainfully employed, who senses that there's an information highwayman at work. Eventually, all interested parties gather at a research facility for a showdown on a super-duper magnetic field.

If this sounds half thought out, it's because it is; half-funded as well. "Ghost" looks undernourished, from its terminally dark lighting schemes to special effects sequences that are few and too far between. As a result, the "virus ghost" of Karl never becomes a malevolent presence like "Lawnmower Man's" Virtual Reality Job, even when he turns into a digital corpus late in the film. Some of the computer-generated "evil force" surges are fun in a "Tron"-like way, but after a while they look like outtakes from industrial films.

On the live front, Allen seems as uninspired by the script as her character seems unbothered by the sudden deaths around her. Allen's been down this effects route before, in "Starman" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark," but she's a sleepwalker here. In truth, the plot stumbles over genre cliches after a promising start and the whole thing becomes lamentable. As an indictment of a techno-society in which too much information is available by computer, it's simply unconvincing. Critically, this "machine" must go unplugged.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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