Ghost in the Machine

Suds of Death
Rachel Talalay
Karen Allen, Chris Mulkey, Ted Marcoux, Wil Horneff
The Setup: 
Spirit of serial killer enters early Internet

As with any new technology, the arrival of the Internet brought with it many new anxieties and fears about what terrible consequences it might prove to have. The specter of identity theft, the fear of lost privacy, the permanent recording of the smallest transactions are some of these that have proven to be enduring and founded in reality. Yet some other early fears, like that the soul of a serial killer might enter the Internet and be able to kill people through common household appliances, have proven unfounded.

This film concerns itself with that very scenario, one that once seemed all too possible. It is brought to terrifying life by Karen Allen, best known as Indiana Jones' girlfriend, and Chris Mulkey, best known as Hank from Twin Peaks. It is directed by Rachel Talalay, who also brought us Tank Girl before retreating into television directing. We open with these fun 80s circuit board graphics, expressing the intricacy of, you know, circuit boards. Then mousy mom Allen as Terry picks her son, Josh, up from school, as he and his friend are trying to scam a man out of money. She launches immediately into "I lost you, Josh. Somewhere along the way, I lost you." He is upset about his absent father. We're upset about the already-horrendous script.

Meanwhile, a suburban family home looks like an inviting space--until we see the entire family slaughtered inside. This is the work of the Address Book Killer, who steals someone's address book, then goes around killing everyone in it. If you think about it, that's a lot of killing, given that most people have more than twenty people in their address books (when people still had address books), and many of them are often at great distances. Perhaps frequent flier miles played a decisive role. Anyway, Terry, who here is sighing, naive and passive in a way she never was in Raiders, goes in to the local computer store to check out some of this radically new desktop software that is changing the face of business. She is wowed by a program that can scan a page of--what else?--her address book, and convert it into electronic entries. The moronic mother then leaves her address book in the store, which is later seen being fondled by the creepy store employee--who just HAPPENS to also be the Address Book Killer! My God, it could happen to any one of us.

In here we also meet Mulkey as former badass hacker Bram Walker, now reduced to getting a crappy computer tech job for an asshole boss. Then we rejoin our killer who is on his way to a triple homicide when he has a terrible car accident during a storm. He is brought in to the hospital and stuffed into an MRI unit which scans his brain. BUT, during that crucial moment, there is a power surge (dear God, NOT a power surge!) and the hospital clearly does not have adequate surge protection which, as a simple trail of logic will lead you to conclude, is guaranteed to result in the soul of the serial killer being digitized and brought to life in the digital world. The killer enters the network of Datanet, which is a sort of Compuserve-style early Internet provider. Guess what's also clanging around in that there Internet? That one page of Terry's address book. Holy shit, now it's ON.

The first thing that happens is that the nefarious killer drains, then cancels Terry's bank accounts. This will prove to have remarkably few consequences for the remainder of the story. Then she starts getting strange IM's, referred to here as emails. This results in Bram coming over to her house, where Terry expresses her frustration that "You give us Ticketron and bank machines, but then we get some sort of Big Brother who keeps a record of every time you sneeze!" Yeah, Mom's a little simple.

Now in here we have had a very brief fragment showing Terry at her job, strategically-placed to show us that she HAS a job, since we will never see her work again for the duration the film. Also introduced during this time are blink-and-you'll-miss-them introductions to tangentially-related victims, such as Terry's boss, her unfulfilling boyfriend and her overbearing mother. First to go is her boss. We have some early CGI work showing us the inner workings of the Internet, always guaranteed to bring a smile, while demonstrating that the Address Book Killer is cruising around the power grid looking to continue his fiendish series of slaughter. He crawls up the power cord of the hapless man's microwave, which isn't even digitally-enabled, but let's not get too technical. Terry's boss, who wears disconcerting orange shorts and salivates excitedly over his selection of available microwave dinners, tosses one in the malevolent microwave. Soon the entire kitchen is heating, somehow, causing butter to explode, eggs to pop and bananas to ooze, and the slightest touch of the microwave, with his HAND, to create massive blistering on the man's FACE. Soon he is horrifically blistered all over, an effect whose horror is undercut only by the fact that it does not make even the slightest lick of sense, and he is rendered a well-roasted corpse.

Then Terri is at the man's funeral in which we see that her church has an in-house cremator, where the coffin slides right out of the church into the fire, then suddenly springs back, launching the flaming corpse into the crowd! Oh, but it was all a dream. She then goes over to the killer's apartment? So she's a little mini-investigator now? I guess so. Meanwhile, Josh is over at a friends' house, leaving the dog at home alone, and in the path of evil. The TV snaps on, showing a dog swimming, which naturally leads the dog to want to go out and jump into the pool. You can see how logical all of this is. Josh and friend are at the arcade, where they have this virtual reality game that pastes Josh and friend's face on little CGI avatars that run around hunting each other. BUT someone is in there with them! It's the killer! And he hunts them, while you're sitting there wondering what real damage he could do. He pops up and throws Josh off a virtual cliff, which causes the wee lad to somehow flip over a waist-high guard rail in reality. Woah, pretty terrifying!

Josh goes home to find the dog missing, and the pool cover closed. He investigates, causing him to fall in, where he discovers the dog's sodden corpse, and has the pool cover start snapping closed on him, trapping him in a watery grave. He escapes. Meanwhile, remember Terri's asshole boyfriend who was barely introduced? Turns out he performs automotive crash tests for a living, which he has invited Terri to come watch, as a date. I DID tell you he's an asshole. After several lengthy build-ups and slowdowns, the crash system springs to life with him in the car, smashing him into a wall! But he lives. He then goes to the bathroom, where an electric hand dryer turns into an impromptu flamethrower and kills him. If you're beginning to think that this sounds like a little proto-Final Destination, you're not far off. Only it's not nearly as fun.

Terri's just going about her life when she starts getting phone calls from the killer. He doesn't have much to say. Meanwhile Josh is at his friends' again, and they are both being babysat by this comely blonde. She talks to her boyfriend on the phone while the infant sibling of Josh's friend crawls unattended around the house, ending up in the kitchen filled with butcher knives, electric carvers, boiling milk and a hot clothes iron. The infant is saved, then Josh and friend offer the sitter $37.28 to take her top off, which she does. She then repairs to the gigantic kitchen, where the dishwasher floods, sending a pool of soapy suds out under her feet, which soon becomes electrified. The poor girl is flamboyantly electrocuted, just before the dishwasher reaches its "explode" setting. I'm serious.

Soon Josh figures out that the killings are happening in an order, which is the order the victims appear in that one scanned page of Terri's address book. By now they have also figured out that they are being menaced by the spirit of the Address Book killer. Next on the list is grandma, you remember quickly-introduced grandma, right? They go around unplugging all appliances for the night, although grandma won't give up her curling iron for the night! She just LOVES curling her hair deep into the night, you know. But do you think that's enough to thwart the fiendish Address Book killer? Think again, mon frere. The killer calls all the police in the area to surround the house, guns drawn, and when a loud pop sounds from a nearby transformer, they start shooting up the house! Grandma gets hit, but sadly we don't see it. And it is, naturally, only in the shoulder. Look movie, you killed the dog, you can goddamn well kill Grandma too.

Then Terri is driving around one day, while you're like "Umm, don't you have a JOB? And also--weren't your bank accounts and all funds deleted a few days ago?" No matter. The wicked killer plays with the traffic lights, resulting in a near-collision that nearly kills Terri, yet leaves her strangely unfazed. I guess she's quite used to these near-lethal car accidents. No point in getting excited over nothing.

Now Bram, who has been around, inching toward romance with Terri, develops a plan. He is going to hack the Cleveland grid (did I tell you this is all happening in Cleveland?) and upload a virus that will force the killer into the local particle accelerator, where his particles will be, you know, accelerated, and this will destroy him. In the CLEVELAND, OHIO particle accelerator. You know. You've heard of that one. I'm sure your mid-sized urban community has a particle accelerator, too. They go to the big lab and flip it on, which somehow allows the killer to manifest as a CGI character in the room, but one that cannot be harmed, because he's just particles. He fights them, blah, blah, but finally Terri sends him into the particle accelerator where he is destroyed at last. The end.

It was good, early 90s, dawn of the Internet ludicrous fun. With a frankly moronic premise at its heart, which it follows through on with deadly earnestness, you're treated to a lot of flamboyant killings that don't make a whit of sense, but are even more fun for that reason. You also get a great deal of lame acting (poor, poor Allen), CGI visualizations of what's going on in that thar Internet (always a fave), and Final Destination-esque looks around kitchens and suchlike to see all the potentially-deadly common household instruments on display. I don't know, I liked it. It was super fun. It also asks nothing of your brain, which can be welcome. If you're up for a stupid good time with lots of silliness and killings and bad acting, self-seriousness based on a foundation of pure idiocy, here you go--enjoy.

Should you watch it: 

If you like it ridiculous and violent.