Recommendations: Barbarian and Ghost in the Machine

A woman sits in a living room while a man stands across from her, in Barbarian

My understanding is that the term ‘barbarian’ originally just meant someone who isn’t Greek, which is a little xenophobic. I’m not telling you to avoid the word, though, or saying it’s a problem in the title of the film Hawk is here to recommend to you this week (Barbarian). You don’t have to care about this little etymology lesson at all if you don’t want to.

Maybe it might pique your interest a little more to mention that the phrase ‘ghost in the machine’ was coined by Gilbert Ryle, who used it pejoratively in his critique of Cartesian mind/body dualism. But I don’t think this has anything to do with the ’90s thriller Paul recommends either; it’s just a cool phrase. Ryle is interesting, though. I’ll throw in a little recommendation that you check out his work—if you’re into reading philosophy.

Regardless, what you’ll find in this space each week are recommendations from our discerning staff of writers. Sometimes it will be a new TV show, other times an old film, or perhaps a podcast or game or book or new kind of potato chips. This week it’s two films, one new and one less new: Barbarian (2022) and Ghost in the Machine (1993).

If you’re interested in exploring more about the genre, check out this comprehensive list of the best horror franchises, which offers insights into some of the most iconic and chilling series in horror cinema.

And as always feel free to make your recommendations to us in the comments!

New Film Recommendation: Barbarian

Hawk Ripjaw: I absolutely love when a comedy writer-director decides to pivot to horror. It’s often said that comedy and horror are closely linked in structure and rhythm, with both genres operating on a steady build-up and subversion of expectations to culminate in a surprising “punchline.” Whitest Kids U’Know alum Zach Cregger is responsible for Barbarian, and it is yet another success story from the comedy-to-horror pipeline.

I can wholeheartedly recommend Barbarian, but to enumerate the specific reasons for why that is would be to spoil part of what makes it so effective. The movie’s trailer (and I believe there is only the one trailer) does a very good job of giving away as little as possible. The movie begins with Tess (Georgina Campbell) arriving at an Airbnb in Detroit for a job interview the next morning. However, the house has been double booked, with another man named Keith (Bill Skarsgard) already there. Keith is just as confused as she is, but he’s nice, albeit awkward, and insists that she stay out of the rain and take the bedroom while he crashes on the couch. While snooping around the residence later, Tess discovers a passageway in the basement. Things go from there, and that’s just about all you need to know going in.

Everything works in Barbarian’s favor from a filmmaking standpoint: it is beautifully shot and edited, especially in how the camera will often hold steady on a doorway or other object to build this incredible, creeping dread (DP Zach Kuperstein was also responsible for The Eyes of My Mother). The cuts between scenes are perfectly executed, and as the story expands ever so slightly, Cregger experiments here and there with different types of shots. I really was not expecting the movie to look this good. The score (by Anna Drubich) and sound design are equally impressive in how they build tension. From the opening shot that rises out of the bushes and slowly pushes towards Tess in her vehicle, there’s a rising, wavering tone that says, right away, this sh*t is about to get wild.

Tess and Keith discuss how they, as a female and a male, would have handled this double-booked situation were the roles reversed. It’s a theme that could have easily hit the audience over the head, but here it’s surprisingly clever. You get a real sense that Tess is extremely careful, and each of the main characters approaches the same situation with a different reaction. This does result in some pretty funny moments with one character, and we know just enough about that character for it to feel organic.

Barbarian is a solid horror movie. It’s surprising, unpredictable, darkly funny at times, and frequently very scary. On a technical level, it is excellently assembled, and the jump scares never feel unearned. There’s not really anything like it, and I am so glad I saw it in theaters. Absolutely check it out.

Older Film Recommendation: Ghost in the Machine (1993)

Paul Keelan: Ghost in the Machine is a paranoid thriller about the perils of technology. For a middlebrow ’90s slasher flick, it has an ingeniously off-the-wall premise. It feels like a bizarre fusion of Final Destination and Cronenberg post-body horror: without the latter’s artiness or edge. Aesthetic shortcomings aside, Ghost in the Machine works as a deliriously entertaining curio: offering a zany parable about unbridled technology that earns kudos for tapping into rational fears re: AI and advanced computer technology at a fairly inchoate stage.

The central plot is inarguably campy and absurd, and the execution is even more ridiculous. To keep things simple, the film follows Karl Hochman, a computer store technician known as the “Address Book Killer” due to his psychopathic shtick of stealing address books and then murdering everyone listed written down within. Time has served the setup well. Even this dated strategy feels endearingly retro—tapping into a now softcore techno-landscape where the public psyche feared its anonymity undermined and its security threatened simply by being listed in a public registry. Looking back in retrospect from our current panopticon, such suspicions were both legible yet laughably nascent. Back then the notion of rampant cybernetic invasion into our daily lives and private affairs was but child’s play.

To push the story along, Karl purloins the address book of our main family (The Munroes) after a fellow salesman borrows it to exhibit the perks of a handheld scanner (a pertinent, beta-metaphor for the dangers of systemic identification). The family is therefore ostensibly next in line on his hit list. On the way to the Munroes’ residence, however, Karl’s car flips over during a thunderstorm (in a graveyard, of course), and then, an electrical shortage fries his brain during an ensuing MRI at the hospital. As a result of this epic cascade of narratively serendipitous events, Karl somehow fuses with an electrical circuit—inexplicably attaining the power to inhabit any gadget or appliance connected to computer networks or the electrical grid. In other words, Karl has transubstantiated into an electro-technological virus with omnipresent techno-permeability. He has the power to hack into computer programs. He has now become a viral/digitized serial killer.

At this juncture, Ghost in the Machine begins to resemble the Final Destination films as our villainous virus turns the object world against his tormented victims. The first kill involves weaponizing a microwave. Though the electrical dynamics are a bit murky, Karl manipulates a power shortage to transform a suburban kitchen into an explosive, electromagnetic vacuum of hyper-electric energy: bananas splurge out of their peels, popcorn pops, and our first victim’s face becomes a gurgling mound of welts and boils. It is gruesome, silly, and diabolically funny: a wicked blend of lowbrow horror and sci-fi beats. Forego the baffling physics questions about how our electronic/techno-serial killer can transfer from a computer to a microwave to a plug outlet, and you’ll enjoy a deliciously absurdist slasher sequence.

A man looks to the side while another is out of focus behind him in Ghost in the Machine

The successive kills follow the same line of ridiculous logic. A swimming pool cover tries to drown Josh Munroe (Wil Horneff)—with the electric cleaner wrapping its tendrils around his limbs and the cover closing on top. A crash dummy test launches prematurely with a worker stuck inside the vehicle. (The man somehow survives but is then scorched alive by a hand dryer.) Meanwhile, our lead matriarch, Terry Munroe (Karen Allen), soon begins to receive threatening phone calls from our cyber villain. Ironically, the police force on the case reassuringly informs Terry that hackers may be able to extract funds or steal private information, but they cannot murder a victim. Of course, they’re dead wrong.

It’s thus up to Josh, Terry, and a helpful computer geek, Bram (Chris Mulkey), to take matters into their own hands and fight the killer virus themselves—recoding the thing to death. Here, we witness a super early instance of cyber-warfare in cinema. Josh uses a virtual reality simulation to confront the serial killer firsthand, and Bram works tirelessly to protect the Munroes by initiating a counter-cyberattack. The tech may be lo-fi and more nostalgic than menacing, but the ominous intuitions of the film linger long after. Clearly, ’90s horror films had a foreboding sense of Silicon Valley’s portentous horizons. Clearly, the zeitgeist smelled blood in the Ethernet cables very early on. And yet, here we are, still perilously colluding with tech companies each time we ask Alexa for the evening’s meatloaf recipe.

Ghost in the Machine is currently available for rent on Prime, Apple TV, Vudu, YouTube, and many other platforms.

Written by TV Obsessive

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