Ghosts in the machines

Electronic devices are a portal for the dead in 'White Noise.'

Pop spiritualism has been the rage lately, with cable shows like "Crossing Over" and even "The Pet Psychic" racking up big ratings. In this atmosphere it was inevitable that a movie like "White Noise" would come along. The film uses the notion of "electronic voice phenomena" to propel a plot about ghosts communicating from "beyond" via VCRs and computer discs.

The main character is Jonathan, an architect with a seemingly blissful life - professional success, a lovable little son, and a wife who's gorgeous as well as a bestselling author. Her latest novel is called "The Eternal Wait," which would be a good title for this movie, where genuine thrills come less frequently than horror fans might hope.

Jonathan's bliss takes a tumble when his wife goes missing after a car accident; and things become downright weird when he's contacted by a funny-looking stranger who informs him that (a) the gorgeous wife is dead and (b) she's been trying to contact Jonathan through electronic means.

I won't give away additional plot details, partly because you may enjoy the picture's occasional surprises, and partly because the movie is so muddled that it's hard to figure out. Is our hero getting dangerously involved with real ghosts, or with some sort of psychopathic hoax, or both? The evidence keeps shifting. Some may call this artful ambiguity. I call it sloppy screenwriting.

"White Noise" has its merits, including persuasive acting by Michael Keaton - too bad this unchilling chiller won't give his sagging career much of a lift - and a superb performance by Ian McNeice as the odd stranger.

The picture also touches on interesting issues that some better-handled film might pursue in time to come. Like movies as different as "Poltergeist" and "Videodrome" and "The Ring," it taps into subtle fears that high-tech communications have gotten too sophisticated for us to understand, and maybe too ornery for us to control.

Beneath its regrettably banal surface, "White Noise" raises the creepy question of whether intimidating, even malign forces may be lurking in those fancy gadgets that fill our living rooms and offices.

Rated PG-13; contains violence.

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