#WomenMakeSF Review (16): Ghost in the Machine (1993)

Aug-05-2021 16-16-15Ghost in the Machine (1993, USA)

Director: Rachel Talalay

Writer: William Davies and William Osborne

Women in the crew: Janice Hampton and Eric Huggins (editors); Debra Zane (casting); Sarah Burdick Stone (set decoration); Isis Mussenden (costume design); Sheryl Berkoff (make-up supervisor); Kelcey Fry (make-up artist); Peggy Semtob (hair stylist); Betsy Magruder (first assistant director: second unit); Keir McIntyre (second assistant director); Shawna Callahan, Kathryn Camp, Fran Kaplan (assistant editors); Juliet Landau (apprentice editor); Boonie Greenberg (music supervisor); Sharron Reynolds, Suzie Sax (script supervisors); Kimberley Adam-Galigan (assistant costume designer), Barbara Cimity, Anne Graham, Heather Graham (computer display screen animation: Cimity Art); also across art, VFX, sound, electrical, and production  

Available to stream: Available to rent and purchase online

This review contains **SPOILERS**


Ghost in the Machine is a 1990s techno-horror that builds upon fears of the increasing networking of technologies from computers and VR to home appliances. Almost 20 years later we talk to our virtual assistants who have the capacity to manage/control all the networked technology in our home – Siri and Alexa are ghosts in our machines. In Ghost in the Machine the machines come under the nefarious control of a serial killer whose consciousness is uploaded into the hospital’s networking system, DATANET, after he dies in an MRI scanner during an electrical storm (Frankenstein vibes). Yes, the science is wrong (same bad/magical MRI science that gives Zoey her extraordinary playlist), but the discussions of technology remain relevant.

Karl, AKA the Address Book Killer (Ted Marcoux) randomly selects his victims from lost and stolen address books; after getting her planner scanned for safekeeping, at the computer store Karl works at, Terry (Karen ‘Marion Ravenwood’ Allen) forgets it and she and her son Josh (Wil Horneff) become the focus of the killer’s multi-platform murder spree. Uploaded into the mainframe, Karl uses the electrical grid and computer networks to find and kill victims from an arcade VR game (Virtuality/Dactyl Nightmare) to a dishwasher (alternative title: Attack of the Killer Dishwashers).

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Technology has been a source of fear and anxiety since the industrial revolution, from Frankenstein to The Matrix. Concerns about the influence of networked technologies and our increasing reliance on them is a rapidly evolving issue. The first ISPs (internet service providers) launched in the late 1980s and the first publicly available browsers in 1991. Although emails date back to the 1960s it wasn’t until 1994 and the launch of webmail clients that email began its ascent – Josh’s familiarity with virtual spaces and email show his advanced knowledge. With the help of DATANET expert and hacker Bram (Chris ‘Hank Jennings’ Mulkey) Karen and Josh need to vanquish their virtual killer in the analog world. Again, bad science: Bram, Josh and Terry defeat Karl by using a virus to chase him into a particle accelerator to separate his atoms and then “mash his atoms into oblivion”.

Control is a key theme in Ghost in the Machine: serial killers lack the logical and ethical framework that most people consider themselves to have. Karl’s killings are unpredictable as they are random and he lacks control over his urge to kill. Fear stems from concerns over who has control over the technology–who has access to personal bio/data and how it is being used. Can we be confident in the resilient idea of the neutrality (politically and morally) of science and technology?

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Ghost in the Machine has an inventive visual style where the perspective of the camera shifts between human subjects and apparently inhuman techno objects. Terry is filmed through the agentic perspective of a cash machine in a reverse shot reminiscent of the worldview of Robocop (1987). The merging of the deranged human mind with unbounded technology makes both scarier. Even dishwashers (I am already wary of microwaves). The unbiased ‘eye’ of the surveillance camera is made ‘evil’ by the operator; even household appliances and machinery like elevators (see 1983 Dutch SF The Lift) can become ‘evil’ when we consider how the technology can then interact with or affect the individual. 

Ghost in the Machine revels in its glitches, the uncontrollable moments that illustrate our increasing dependence on machines and our fears of system failures. The electrical surge results in the ‘soul’ consciousness of a serial killer entering the virtual and digital landscape. His last moments are visualised through a glitching screen and the pixelated image of the brain merging with the texture and nature of the scanned image. The visually ambitious style of Ghost in the Machine perhaps draws upon Talalay’s background as a computer programmer and the most memorable scene—the microwave murder—gives us a visualisation of data [the killer] travelling across the network. As Talalay explains:

“There’s a really beautiful, for the time, sequence where we’re inside the computer trying to bang against the computer and glitching the computer, which is really funny because [the murder victim to be is] on the TWA website. Then we watch [Karl] travel through the wires, and we do this macro stuff through the wires. And then on the outside of the wires, and through the plug hole, and into the microwave.”Rachel Talalay 

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In Ghost in the Machine the technology is ‘controlled’ by the killer’s consciousness rather than a faceless corporation or institution. But it reveals an interesting comment on the way we receive and interpret science and technology. Science and technology are knowledge and tools that take on meaning through the ways they are used by people and embedded into culture. They are not separate from the cultures and systemic issues that produced those people (still often white men) who design products and write the code. 

Machines can discriminate. Technology is not neutral. Technological bias means that technology is developed and trained using (often) white men as the norm, so facial analysis and recognition software struggles to recognise people of colour and process women’s faces and voices. Law enforcement uses drones and police body cameras fitted with facial analysis or recognition software for lethal operations – technology that shows a bias as it incorrectly identifies and analyses people of colour.

As Joy Buamlomwini, founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, explains: issues of bias ‘tend to most adversely affect the people who are rarely in positions to develop technology’. Without prioritising diversity in the creation of technology the (often unconscious) bias embedded into the individual (the norm of the white straight abled-bodied male) becomes inherent in the technologies they create. In Ghost in the Machine the technology is interfaced with the ‘mind’ (read: coding) of a serial killer. A man with a primitive desire to kill inhabits advanced technology that is shown as embedded and networked across both domestic and institutional spheres; he becomes unescapable. 

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Although written and produced by men (both called William FYI), Ghost in the Machine is a Rachel Talalay film. It is an innovative quality piece of filmmaking showing Talalay’s skill with visual storytelling. Looking back at it from 2021 it is SUPER nineties with classic lines like: “I can’t wait to ice this skeezer”, and references to MTV, game arcades, early VR, and videotapes. But in 1993 it was representing and using cutting edge technologies with (for the time) extensive VFX and SFX units and computer generated imagery (CGI). The film builds worlds across multiple platforms – I loved the texture and movement of the camera in the visualisation of the computer interface and the way the information/power travelled through the ‘tubes’ of the networks. 

Ghost in the Machine is unfairly largely forgotten but can be seen to be part of an important era of techno-thriller/horrors/SF starting with Videodrome (1983) and Pulse (1988), and going on to include films like Circuitry Man (1990), The Lawnmower Man (1992, 1996), Arcade (1993), Brainscan (1994),Virtuosity (1995), eXistenz (1999) and, of course, The Matrix (1999). Fears of virtual reality, a failure to be able to distinguish between the real and virtual worlds, and how AI might escape the confines of the computer are recurrent themes. As a huge Buffy fan I also recalled the ‘I Robot, You Jane’ (1:8, 1997) first season episode where Moloch the Corruptor (nice ref to early SF Metropolis’ monster machine) is scanned and uploaded onto the Internet and Giles has to seek the help of techno-pagans to contain the beast.

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Ghost in the Machine‘s visual style and approach to uncontrollable disembodied evil can be seen later in films like the Final Destination franchise, and was a possible reference point for the opening scenes of Scream (1996) where the call is coming from inside the house rather than from inside the phone itself (Wes Craven does similar things with the cinematography in terms of canted angles and the framing of the Terry/Casey and phone). It is a solid horror film that combines SF techno-fear and serial killers, the murders are quite intense, and safety of the domestic space is disrupted not by physical home invasion but the invasion of homes by digital and virtual technologies. As the reviewer from the New York Times noted there is a link back to Talalay’s earlier film Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) as it “echoes Freddy’s weird ability to creep into supposedly safe places. Here it’s the telephone instead of your dreams, but the premise is the same. So is the film’s rhythm.” Talalay is one of the few women directors of science fiction who has a sustained genre film and TV career – she has been involved in key cybermen episodes and introduced the world to the first woman incarnation of the Doctor in Doctor Who, brought us the iconic Tank Girl, and her work shows a love of cinema, storytelling and suspense. Long may she continue. 


Excellent video that shows off the film’s visual and the killer soundtrack by Graeme Revell: 

EKErnVoU0AA-Lp-What to watch next from Rachel Talalay:
Tank Girl (1995) 
Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991
Doctor Who (2014-2017) – 8 episodes.
Highlights: ‘Dark Water’ (8:11) where the true identity of ‘Missy is revealed, and ‘Death in Heaven’ (8:12) where Missy resurrects the dead as an army of cyborgs. ‘World Enough and Time’ (10:11) that reintroduces the Mondasian Cybermen, not seen since 1966, and the second of this two part season finale ‘The Doctor Falls’ (10:12) that details the origins of the Mondasian Cybermen and concludes the arc of the two incarnations of the Master (Simm and Missy/Gomez). This season finale was followed by ‘Twice Upon a Time’ the final Christmas DW broadcast (now on New Year’s Day) that introduced the first female-presenting Doctor played by Jodie Whittaker, which Talalay also directed.

Further reading:
Cheryl Eddy (2020), A Salute to Director Rachel Talalay, a True Genre Pioneer https://gizmodo.com/a-salute-to-director-rachel-talalay-a-true-genre-pione-1845633858

Kayti Burt (2020), Talalay’s Terrors! The Director Breaks Down Her 5 Scariest Scenes https://www.denofgeek.com/tv/rachel-talalay-five-scariest-scenes/

Institute of Contemporary Arts (2014), Tank Girl State of Mind: An Interview with Rachel Talalay https://archive.ica.art/bulletin/tank-girl-state-mind-interview-rachel-talalay

Steffen Hantke (2015), ‘Network Anxiety: Prefiguring Digital Anxieties in the American Horror Film’, In Digital Horror Haunted Technologies, Network Panic and the Found Footage Phenomenon edited by Linnie Blake and Xavier Aldana Reyes. IB Tauris, pp.17-28

Jason Bailey (2015), A Brief History of Hollywood Being Totally Terrified of Computers https://www.flavorwire.com/498670/a-brief-history-of-hollywood-being-totally-terrified-of-computers 

Excellent short film from University of Cambridge and the Centre for Future Intelligence that discusses the philosophical concept of the ghost in the machine with further film examples:

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