'Ghost' short-circuits itself in tale of electric-appliance murders

December 31, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

In "Ghost in the Machine," a homicidal killer infiltrates a computer network and starts hunting people from the far side of the green screen.

Question No. 1: Why didn't somebody just call the Ghostbusters? They ain't afraid of no ghosts!

Unfortunately, the film doesn't make anyone else afraid of ghosts either.

This end-of-year curiosity is so front-loaded with computer-generated special effects that its few microbytes of common sense got dumped. To begin with, it recycles the old stalker recipe with only minor modifications, the primary one being the universe through which the killer moves.

In the "Friday the 13th" movies, that old boy Jason just moved through the bushes; in the slightly evolved "Nightmare on Elm Street," the killer, now called Freddy, worked the dream world. In "Ghost in the Machine," he's in the wires that undergrid modern life.

Getting him there is quite a trick and the movie handles it so lamely it really never recovers. We begin with the "Address Book Killer," a young computer hacker (Ted Marcoux) who for reasons nobody this side of Richard von Krafft-Ebing could make clear, steals address books and murders the people listed in them. The last book he steals belongs to a recently divorced mother played by the once great star Karen Allen; on his way to knock her off, he has a traffic accident.

Near death, he's taken to the local shock-trauma unit and popped into the magnetic resonance imager; and, at the precise moment he dies, that unit gets a power spike from a lighting bolt. Therefore he is magically "absorbed" into the computer network, liberated to swim among the free electrons like a tarpon among the guppies and break the surface into reality anywhere there's an electric device.

This leads to the movie's significant motif: death by major appliance. It's like a David Letterman riff on G.E.: Better dying through electricity. One guy gets nuked into Stouffer's Diet Linguine by his own microwave; then a teen-age girl is fried to burnt toast by a dishwasher. The most absurd is the chap who turns on the men's room hand-dryer to receive a dragon's breath of napalm. That's why you should always use the towels!

Bear in mind that as flamboyant as these terminations are, they have next to nothing to do with the story, which mainly chronicles poor Karen Allen's increasing agitation. Once Indy Jones' best girl, the actress labors heroically to keep from laughing at all the silliness, while a puppy-like Chris Mulkey, as another genius-level computer hacker, tries to get to the bottom of it all.

As horror melodrama, the piece is seriously undercut by two major flaws. First, when it disembodies its villain, it shorts itself out. For the recipe to work, we have to see, feel and know the bad guy; here he's just a malicious electronic force who only takes on human shape again in the movie's climax, which is its second major flaw.

It's just not demonic enough, or even clear enough: Allen, Mulkey and Wil Horneff, as Allen's peppy 14-year-old son, run around some kind of generic science installation ("Ohio Tech") chasing and being chased by an animated atomic man, while Mulkey shouts inanities like "Darn it, we've got to rewire" and dramatically taps away at the computer keyboard. The killer, at the same time, looks as if he's made of jujubes, not exactly the most frightening image.

The director, former Baltimorean Rachel Talalay, brings off at least two brilliant sequences: a set piece where the bad guy invades a mall-arcade virtual-reality shoot-out in which the kid is taking part, and the aforementioned death by microwave. If the movie's a hit, it could ruin the diet dinner industry.

"Ghost in the Machine"

Starring Karen Allen and Chris Mulkey

Directed by Rachel Talalay

Released by Twentieth Century Fox

R-rated

... **

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