The Lonely Man with the Ghost Machine

The Lonely Man with the Ghost Machine (2024) at Make Believe 2024

The Lonely Man with the Ghost Machine had its world première at Make Believe Seattle 2024

The Lonely Man with the Ghost Machine offers a scenario that is post-apocalyptic twice over. For it opens, five years after an alien invasion known only as The Calamity, when one of the only remaining survivors, Wozzek (Graham Skipper, also writer, director, producer and editor), witnesses one of the only others, his wife Nellie (Christina Bennet Lind), being chased down and devoured by a crocodilian creature in front of the isolated cabin that has become their last refuge. Four years later, Wozzek is the lonely man of the title, with the colour of those earlier scenes now drained away to leave only a dull monochrome. 

Wozzek’s existence has become solipsistic, even (at times literally) masturbatory, as he drunkenly sad-wanks himself to sleep at night and lives off what might just be fantasies of a world beyond the cabin door, and outside of himself. Wozzek resorts to engaging in conversation with a tape recording of his own voice that he has made earlier, just for the illusion of some company. He has also created a hilariously lo-fi ‘ghost machine’ – essentially a big electric bulb on a wired metal frame with three old-school switches – which is designed, in a reflex of cinema itself, to conjure a living, breathing version of Nellie from mere memories and light, and to restore a little warmth and colour to his world. So The Lonely Man with the Ghost Machine is drawing as much on Adolfo Bioy Casares’ novel The Invention of Morel (1940) – with its projected romance and clifftop assignations – as on end-of-the-world films like Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend (2007) and John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place (2018).

The Lonely Man with the Ghost Machine

Wozzek has one other interlocutor – a visitor (voiced by Paul Guyet) who comes knocking at the door every midnight and speaks to him in the sweet, sinisterly seductive tones of a Satanic tempter. His opening words to Wozzek, “We’ve met before”, recall the exact same words of introduction delivered – in the same sardonic tone – by the Mystery Man (Robert Blake) from David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997), suggesting that The Lonely Man with the Ghost Machine may similarly all be the psychogenic fugue, or the nightmares in a damaged brain, of a man who has been left for far too long to his own devices and struggles to negotiate the cliff’s edge between love and death. 

As the last man on earth, Wozzek is certainly the protagonist of this story, but he is not quite its hero, and his efforts to resurrect Nellie, at least in his mind, also require him to take an honest, inevitably introspective look back at the relationship that was so cruelly snatched from him, but which may already have long since been over anyway. For the nearer that Wozzek’s fantasy of Nellie gets to the real thing, the more he is forced to see himself through her eyes rather than merely his own, and the rather less salubrious (self-)image of Wozzek that emerges will consume him, again and again, in an agonising cycle of Promethean torment. 

The Lonely Man with the Ghost Machine

The shoestring budget of Skipper’s film necessitates that all its science-fiction elements – the Calamity itself, the all-devouring extra-terrestrials that it brings, and Wozzek’s ghost-raising contraption – are reduced to impressionistic elements and left largely to the imagination. This degree of abstraction, however, serves a film whose genre trappings are ripe for allegorical interpretation. For here the Calamity can be read as a metaphor for the rupture of a relationship, leaving Wozzek to work all alone through his feelings of grief and guilt, denial and despair, horniness and hope, before finally confronting the part played by his own inadequacies and imperfections in his love’s sudden, violent break-up. 

Meanwhile Skipper once again, as in Eric Pennycoff’s The Leech (2022), plays an unflattering principal rôle in a Yuletide-set psychodrama. For the Calamity expressly occurred at Christmas, and the gradually materialising Nellie and the insidious visitor at the door resemble the ghosts in Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol (1843), revealing difficult, painful truths to Wozzek about his past, present and future. Far from being redemptive, though, Skipper’s bleak tale trusses up its antihero as the turkey for multiple courses of the holiday feast. It is an accusatory, unforgiving carve-up a relationship gone irreconcilably, irrecoverably awry, and served with all the toughest of trimmings. 

strap: Graham Skipper’s haunting sci-fi allegory unforgivingly anatomises an apocalyptic break-up from the inside

© Anton Bitel