Starring: Karen Allen, Chris Mulkey, Will Horneff, Ted Marcoux
Rated R for High-Tech Horror Violence
Just like "The Mangler" and "Bad Moon," I watched "Ghost in the Machine" for one reason only: James Berardinelli's review of it was so hilarious I had to see it. If only for some masochistic enjoyment. One could argue that "The Mangler" was stupid fun (it's definitely a movie that was made to be watched with your friends and a lot of booze), but "Bad Moon" was tedious. And as bad as the latter was, this one is worse.
When it comes to a movie's premise, I'll accept anything, even if I have to suspend logic. You'd be surprised at how many movies work once you accept them on their own terms ("Anaconda" and "Speed" are two examples...both are extremely silly, but if you accept them for what they are, they're a lot of fun). Like those two movies, "Ghost in the Machine" boasts a totally ridiculous premise: a serial killer has died in the MRI machine during a power surge and has become a computer virus that can travel through any electrical cord and take control over anything with a computer chip. As Mr. Berardinelli pointed out in his review, technology doesn't work like that (although one could argue that we're getting closer to that point by the day, but this movie was made in 1993), I was willing to overlook that rather large detail if it meant an entertaining ride. Sadly, my generosity was not reciprocated. Even on its own terms, the movie still sucks.
The serial killer of this movie, a Norman Bates wannabe named Karl Hopkins (Marcoux), is known as the "Address Book Killer." His modus operandi is to steal someone's address book and slaughter everyone in it. Gruesome and rather odd, but hey, was Ghostface any less so? Anyway, one day after lifting the address book of a woman named Terry Munroe (Allen), Karl drives to her house to kill her and her son Josh (Horneff). What person puts her name in the listings of her own address book, I don't know, but I guess if you're going to kill all of someone's friends, you might as well let her join the club. But on the way, he ends up wrecking his car, which is how he ends up in the MRI, and you know the rest. Now free of his physical form, Karl can stalk Terry and kill everyone in her address book uninhibited by evidence or a normal person's range of believability. The only one who does believe her is hacker-turned-security expert Bram Walker (Mulkey). Together, the three of them have to stop Karl before he kills them.
Okay, it's not Shakespeare, but there's certainly nothing preventing it from becoming a serviceable thriller. Except for the fact that it lacks everything necessary to raise the adrenaline: a coherent script, a sense of atmosphere, and pacing. Most importantly, it doesn't have a set of rule of what can and cannot happen, which separates this from other equally implausible but more effective thrillers.
The actors do what they can, but considering what they have to work with and how they're used, it's not much. Karen Allen, best known for playing Marion Ravenwood in the "Indiana Jones" movies, is a totally underused actress. She's always good, like in "The Sandlot" or her small role in "In the Bedroom." Allen does what she can, but there's little that she can do with such a thinly written role. Chris Mulkey and Will Horneff aren't bad either, but they're not good (I fault mainly the script and the direction). Since Karl is an omnipotent force for most of the film, he doesn't have a lot of screen time. I think he could have been acceptable had the film afforded him the latitude, but that's only judging by the film's standards, and the bar is set pretty low.
While admittedly the script is in desperate need of some rewrites, the majority of the film's problems lay at the feet of its director, Rachel Talalay, who went on to direct the much-maligned comic-book movie "Tank Girl" (to be fair, the film was taken out of her control by MGM, but if this is the best she can do by herself...). There are three huge flaws with her work on this film. First, is the poor staging of the action scenes. They are so lifeless that I honestly believed that they were done in one take. Take the car accident in the beginning: when it ends up upside down and goes through a graveyard, it moves so slowly that it's impossible to believe that it anyone in it could come away with more than cuts and bruises, much die (this includes the people it runs into...seriously, it's going at like 10 miles an hour off a freeway); the fact that it knocks over a dozen headstones doesn't help since they appear to be made of paper mache or something). And that's just one example. The film's editing is occasionally quite choppy; we never convincingly understand how Terry figures out that it's Karl who's after her and why. Most egregiously, the film moves so slowly. Like at a snail's pace. I mean, it almost brings to mind Ozu's "Tokyo Story" or one of those pretentious art-house movies that only the counter-culture crowd loves. Thrillers are supposed to quicken the pulse, not put you to sleep. Maybe Talalay misread the script...
I'll admit there are a few cheap laughs (at least one of which appears to be intentional), such as when Karl the Virus tries to get into a house, but the appliances have been plugged up and words appear saying something like "No Entry." It's definitely nowhere near the worst movie I've ever seen. But it's still really bad.