In the 1950s, terror struck out from the screen in the form of deformed animals, insects and the like. It's in that spirit that Fox's "Ghost in the Machine" arrives as a late-year chiller. But the new horror comes via scientific gadgetry -- specifically, the computer. The so-called ghost is the soul of a serial killer loose in a mainframe and adept at traveling on electrical current to mete out lethal revenge.

In the 1950s, terror struck out from the screen in the form of deformed animals, insects and the like. It’s in that spirit that Fox’s “Ghost in the Machine” arrives as a late-year chiller. But the new horror comes via scientific gadgetry — specifically, the computer. The so-called ghost is the soul of a serial killer loose in a mainframe and adept at traveling on electrical current to mete out lethal revenge.

It’s an effective, if predictable paranoid fantasy. The film’s social statement may be hopelessly muddy, but its adroit sense of fun and thrills cannot be discounted. This devilish outing looks to score some fast money from a genre crowd prior to the onslaught of new titles in 1994.

The filmmakers stay pretty much with convention, beginning the yarn with some gruesome, unexplained carnage to get things rolling. What finally turns the action is a car wreck on a rainy night. The victim, a computer store employee named Karl Hochman (Ted Marcoux), is rushed to the hospital and put in a brain scanner. When lightning causes a citywide power surge, his body is lost but his spirit escapes into the core of the Datanet Corp. system.

And wouldn’t you just know it, Hochman happens to be the notorious Address Book killer. He’s been lifting people’s personal phone books and murdering those listed within. His latest acquisition belongs to single mom Terry Munroe (Karen Allen) and, though physically disembodied, he has the spirit to continue his killing spree.

Using the phone lines, he can literally dial M for murder and does so in a variety of chilling and stomach-turning ways. It takes time for Munroe, her son and computer wiz Bram Walker (Chris Mulkey) to realize those accidents were planned and that the killer can’t be identified in a conventional police lineup.

The screenplay is inspired by genre fare ranging from the good to the bad. But director Rachel Talalay livens it up with clever computer-generated visuals that nicely obscure the thinness of plot. Pictorially, it is an engrossing undertaking neatly embellished by the skillful lensing of Phil Meheux.

The skilled cast has precious little to do other than present fear and confusion. Ultimately, it boils down to finding a way to destroy a seemingly unstoppable maniac. This is, after all, a concept thriller.

“Ghost in the Machine” can’t be faulted for its ability to hit the appropriate scare buttons. It’s a straight-ahead programmer without pretension or much ambition. For the course of its running time, it keeps viewers cowering under the covers, and that should work out just fine in subsequent video life.

Ghost in the Machine

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of a Paul Schiff production. Produced by Schiff. Co-producers, William Osborne, William Davies, Barry Sabath. Directed by Rachel Talalay. Screenplay, Davis, Osborne.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe), Phil Meheux; editors, Janice Hampton, Erica Huggins; music, Graeme Revell; production design, James Spencer; art direction, Jim Truesdale; set decoration, Sarah Stone; costume design, Isis Mussenden; visual effects supervisor, Richard Hollander; makeup effects/animatronics, Tony Gardener; sound (Dolby), Mark Weingarten; assistant director, Mike Topoozian; casting, David Rubin, Debra Zane. Reviewed at 20th Century Fox Studios, L.A., Dec. 28, 1993. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 95 min.

With

Terry Munroe - Karen Allen
Bram Walker - Chris Mulkey
Karl Hochman - Ted Marcoux
Josh Munroe - Wil Horneff
Elaine Spencer - Jessica Walter
Frazer - Brandon Quintin Adams
Phil - Rick Ducommun
Landlord - Nancy Fish
Elliott - Jack Laufer
Carol - Shevonne Durkin
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