The 1990s saw a good number of technology based horror films. Back then, the internet and CGI effects were just beginning to take off and become the norm. Many people were unsure and wary of the super fast advances in computer technology. Horror filmmakers took the concept and ran with it. Prior to the 90s, a lot of technology based horror movies were regulated to mayhem caused by phones, TV, and video. But with the boom in home computers during the early half of the decade, it was only a matter of time until computer coding would become a new source of terror. This year marks the 25th anniversary of one of the films that came from that onslaught, Ghost in the Machine.
The film follows heroine Terry Munroe, who is targeted by computer store clerk/serial killer Karl, aka “The Address Book Killer“. When Karl’s car crashes during a thunderstorm, he is taken to the hospital. Because of a power surge cause by lightning, his soul in transferred into the computer system of the MRI machine. Once inside the computer system, Karl’s ghost promptly locates Terry and attempts to finish what he planned — to kill the people in her address book. Now, rather than using traditional murder weapons, Karl’s latest killing spree utilizes various technological devices. The concept is not entirely new, bearing a striking resemblance to Wes Craven’s Shocker (1989). Throw in a big dash of Lawnmower Man (1992) and Tron (1982), and you get the gist.
Ghost in the Machine stars Karen Allen (Scrooged), Ted Marcoux, Chris Mulkey (The Standoff At Sparrow Creek), Wil Horneff (The Sandlot), and Shevonne Durkin (Leprechaun 2). Rachel Talalay directed for 20th Century Fox from a screenplay by William Davies and William Osborne. Prior to Ghost in the Machine, Talalay made her directorial debut on 1992’s Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare.
Ghost in the Machine was released theatrically on December 29, 1993 and, tragically, was not well received by fans or critics. According to Wikipedia, with a budget of $12 million, the film was only able to earn around $5 million opening at the number 10 spot in the weekend’s box office. I recently revisited the film for the first time in many years. Read on for my thoughts, but be warned: spoilers ahead!
Ghost in the Machine opens with Karl, The Address Book Killer, committing his final crime as a flesh and blood human. The scene is inner cut with one of Terry and her teenage son, Josh, that is used to establish a little bit of tension between the two. Soon Terry and Josh are shopping at Karl’s computer store where Terry accidentally leaves her address book behind. It doesn’t take long for Karl to make murderous plans with the names listed in Terry’s address book, but his plans are put on hold when he finds himself trapped inside the computer world.
We also meet computer hacker Bram Walker, who works for an internet company and is able to see things like who is logging on to the internet. Bram goes to Terry when he notices somebody is searching out her information online. Soon they accept the cold hard truth — a serial killer is using Terry’s address book to continue his murder spree from inside the computer system. Unable to convince the authorities of what is going on, they decide to take matters into their own hands and destroy Karl for good. This involves all three of the heroes putting their heads together and coming up with a plan of attack that would pull Karl’s ghost out of the computer system by the way of a gigantic magnet.
All these years later, two of the films themes still resonate. 1) Whether or not technology is a threat to our own security and to the safety of those around us, and; 2) Is technology destroying core family values? The idea of technology being a threat to the characters’ safety is obvious. But it’s the second theme, the idea of technology destroying family values, that is the most interesting and smartest move of the screenplay. On the surface, there’s an obvious separation between Terry and her son. It’s partly Josh’s interest in computers and technology that is dividing them.
Earlier in the film, it’s established that Karl has no family or friends. As The Address Book Killer, he’s murdering those that do. Once he dies and becomes one with the computer system, he continues his killing spree. After he’s pulled from the computer, Karl, in pixel form, comes face to face with Terry and Josh, making the idea become quite literal. It’s interesting to think back on the movie with this mindset. In fact, it makes me want to watch the film again, this time paying special attention to catch how technology and Karl’s techno manifestation effect the family dynamic.
Terry and Josh have enough layers to make them believable and likeable. However, I wish Karl would have been given more depth and dimension. There are a lot of instances where further character development for Karl was hinted at but most likely wound up on the cutting room floor. Each member of the cast plays their character well and Shevonne Durkin has a great 90s teen horror screen presence. While never particularly gory or scary, the death scenes in the movie are entertaining and play out like scenes from a Final Destination movie. We get death by microwave, hand dryer, and dishwasher, just to name a few of the ways Karl attacks his victims.
Keep in mind that technology has moved at a rapid pace since 1993. The computers, technology, and effects all look extremely dated but are appropriate for the time period. The score by Graeme Revell is creepy and atmospheric, and the pop songs on the soundtrack, like the CGI effects, are time period appropriate. In the end, the movie definitely has its faults, but is a super enjoyable revisit into the early 90’s techno-horror subgenre.
Ghost in the Machine is currently available on DVD and streaming services. Have you seen the film or are you a fan of the technology based horror? Let us know on Twitter, or on our Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook group.