I traded Netflix for HBO this weekend, taking advantage of a lower price than the $15 I was paying for HBO the last time I had it, but agreeing to deal with a few ads. The ads aren’t bad. More like Tubi’s volume of ads than the ok-you’re-pushing-it IMDb TV or the totally unwatchable Pluto TV. Of course, HBO wants to feature their own soft core porn TV dramas and a lot of mediocre A list movies, but if you’re a compulsive A-Z browser like me you can easily find crap like this, the kind of crap HBO used to show after 8 PM back in the day. They called them “sleepers,” these movies you’ve never heard of, and they never made the front page of the HBO guide that came in the mail every month, but we know now that they were B-movies and we loved the weird stuff possibly even more than the Indiana Jones movies that made the front cover.
I’m only bringing up Indiana Jones because Karen Allen is in Ghost in the Machine, of course. Nothing beats that Ark opening scene. But you know what I’m talking about.
Ghost in the Machine has the added advantage of being a relatively big budget B movie, which means you will recognize all the bit players including the beloved Rick Ducommon of The Burbs, as well as the guy who punched Adam Sandler in the face for sticking his nose in other people’s business in The Wedding Singer. This budget means you get a few decent practical effects and the computer animation is, well, within the bounds of what was possible in 1993. There’s also a general sense that everyone involved knew they weren’t making Eraserhead here, but instead just a fun popcorn horror movie with no pretenses.
I bring up Eraserhead of course because the other star of this movie along with Karen Allen is Chris Mulkey, who played Hank Jennings in Twin Peaks. Side note: my husband hated Hank Jennings so much that he really doesn’t enjoy Chris Mulkey’s other movies. Does that ever happen to you? It happened to me, because I hated David Thewlis so much in Prime Suspect that I can’t really enjoy most of the other stuff he’s in, even though I’m aware he’s one of Britain’s finest thespians and I know when an actor makes you hate them it just means they’re doing a Great Job Thumbs Up. (I do tolerate the fact that he’s cast as Knox Harrington the giggling video artist in Lebowski, because I have a necessary means for a necessary means for higher entertainment. But otherwise that lip smacking bastard stays off my screen.)
But I happen to like Chris Mulkey, in no small part because I think he’s very handsome in that smartass sort of David Duchovny way, which brings me to the observation that his costar Allen has red hair done in a bob here, and the two of them constantly reminded me of an Archer Farms version of Mulder and Scully (notice I was respectful and didn’t call them Great Value Mulder and Scully) even though I know this movie came out in the same year the X-Files debuted. There was even an X-Files episode entitled Ghost in the Machine which also came out in 1993, and it had a similar plot, but that’s a pretty generic title, and fits better with the plot of this movie than that episode anyway.
And what is that plot, now that we’re rolling on into the sixth paragraph? Well, there’s a serial killer on the loose called the Address Book Killer, so named because he steals a victim’s physical address book (remember those? where the hell is mine anyway?) and kills everyone listed in it. He’s about to go after Karen Allen’s address book, which he got when she accidentally left it at a computer store where he worked, a place where people evidently go to upload the contents of their address book onto “desktop software.” But he drives too fast in the rain and ends up sliding down the hill in his car upside down laughing all the way through a cemetery shearing off tombstones. But he doesn’t die there, unfortunately. He dies in the MRI at the hospital where there’s a power surge and his soul gets uploaded onto the internet.
And fortunately for his purposes, in life he was a hacker. Now he can come through household appliances to kill everyone in the address book, including Allen’s boss, who he kills in a standout scene of horror makeup effects by turning his entire kitchen into a microwave. My mother used to tell us not to stand in front of the microwave when it was on, but what happens here is ridiculously disturbing, with bubbling skin and boiling blood. Ew. This is followed up by a nightmare funeral sequence for Allen, not as surreal a dream as someone’s head being dunked into a pot of spaghetti in the baptismal font but pretty gnarly.
Surely she and her junior con man pervert teenage son Josh are goners, right? No, because Chris Mulkey is a rock star famous hacker who once scammed the IRS, but now works for the aforementioned Rick Ducommon (who isn’t impressed with him) at some kind of computer company that has everyone’s information and Mulkey notices a hacker is draining Allen’s bank accounts and so he goes to her house to try to warn/help her. The rest of the movie is a fun and fast paced battle between the two sides, with more bodies piling up in the totally plausible plot. The way they defeat the killer is kind of ahead of its time, or at least topical to the 21st century.
Actually, the most unbelievable thing about a movie in which the killer is a ghost that can come through the internet and make your dishwasher explode is the idea that a hacker would need physical address books. And the second? The casting of Jessica Walter as Karen Allen’s mom, because she would have given birth to her at age 10. Of course, Walter as a young, snarky grandma is right on brand and I’m glad she was in this, although she didn’t get enough screen time. No, that was all spent on her odious grandson Josh (also a hacker) who provided a lot of the intentional comedy, and some of the unintentional. Intentional for example because he visits an arcade called Satan’s Video Inferno. On reflection, this movie is so over the top with the fear of tech that I think it was actually mocking Luddites. And unintentional because he has lines like, “I can’t wait to ice this skeezer,” but again, this could be the movie’s self-awareness making fun of white kids from the suburbs who try to act hard.
Allen’s boring-on-dates-but-a-flaming-asshole-at-work boyfriend, by the way, works in a lab where crash test dummies wreck cars, but his death subverts expectations, and adds another checkmark in the satire category. Although now that I think about it, his ending is foreshadowed a bit when he has trouble lighting a cigarette on their date to the jazz club. If you watch this, don’t tell me I’m thinking about it too much.
Ghost in the Machine is no Matrix, but I liked it more than The Lawnmower Man. If you look at it as a comedy and pretend it was filmed in 1987 it’s worth a couple of viewings, in my opinion. Make it a double bill with the X-Files episode of the same name, but skip the microwave and make your popcorn on the stove. Or better yet, outside over the grill.
P.S. I hate it when they kill the dog in horror movies, so be warned that it happens here. But even that’s kind of funny, because the dog likes to hump things, and he gets excited seeing other dogs in a swimming pool on a commercial and runs out of the dog door to swim in the pool presumably hoping to meet other dogs for some hot swimming action when the killer possesses the pool cover. But at least we don’t see him suffer.
P.P.S. I forgot to mention that Mulkey’s character is named Bram as in Stoker. I’ve never met anyone named Bram, let alone seen a character named Bram in a movie, and this movie is pretty fucking far from being about vampires, so it’s an odd choice. Bram Bam, I’ll save you ma’am.