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REVIEW: The Spirit Machine

– By MovieCritic NextDoor

Almost a century ago, Thomas Edison (Steve North) invented something he called The Spirit Machine. Also almost a century ago, that machine was lost and it has now passed into the realm of myth and urban legend. But as it turns out, not only is the machine still around, it can actually do what Edison claimed: allow the user to talk to the dead.

Meanwhile, Jane (Andrea Ferreyra) is having a rough time. Since the death of her mother (Michelle Monge) it’s just been her and her father, Randy (Will Springhorn), except he isn’t exactly a typical dad. He lives like a hippie, using a metal detector to hunt for treasure on the beach while his daughter’s shoes are falling apart. His outlook is almost unfailingly optimistic — any little antique store or old barn might hold the rare and exciting item they’ve been searching for — but Jane knows better. She’s humoring him, acting far more like a parent then he does.

Then they meet Martha (Gloria Reibin), who not only has an old barn full of possible treasures, but a grandfather who used to work for Edison himself. She tells Jane about the Spirit Machine and the hunt begins in earnest as they work their way past Edison’s old booby traps, which are still in remarkably good working order. I knew Edison loved to sue people but apparently he wasn’t against slicing their heads off, either. As father and daughter work together, seeing each other in a new and better light, the prize is in their reach. The question is, will it be worth it?

The spirit machine is a real thing that Edison claimed to be working on in 1920, variously called the spirit box or the spirit phone. This was a time when many people believed firmly in mediums who could contact the dead — this was only two years after World War I ended and many people had lost sons, husbands, and sweethearts. It was no wonder that so many wanted to believe in a better world beyond this one. Technology, it seemed, could take it out of the hands of the mediums and make the afterlife accessible for anyone.

Certainly Jane wants to believe that, and won’t miss even the smallest chance to talk to her mother one last time, especially since she feels her father has failed her. This quietly unhappy dynamic helps give the movie depth, and the relationship between the leads is very natural and believable. The Indiana-Jones style traps they face (which are quite well done, as are the special effects) add their own charm, and as a fan of history I loved the Edison connection, even though he really did sue an awful lot of his fellow inventors.

He also did believe in some form of afterlife, though more because energy cannot be destroyed than from any strong religious convictions. The general consensus is that he was playing a prank when he spoke of his “spirit phone” and never attempted to build such a gadget. But in this four out of five star short film, the spirit machine is very real and even the possibility that it works is enough to change one small family forever.

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