Reviewed by The Foywonder
Starring Charlie Sheen, Nick Cassavetes, Sherilyn Fenn, Randy Quaid, Matthew Berry, David Sherrill, Jamie Bozian, Griffin O’Neal, Chris Nash
Written and directed by Mike Marvin
The Wraith is the very definition of a cult movie. The premise is outlandish bordering on surreal at times, the acting spotty, the script doesn’t make a whole heck of a lot of sense, some of the characters are outright dumb and hardly any of them behave like a real human being would given the circumstances, and it is very much a snapshot of a particular time period (there is no mistaking this film was made in the mid-Eighties: the hair, the music, the fashions, etc.) Like any great cult movie the good and the bad come together to make for a fun film. Reviewing this film is not an easy task because explaining why this movie works is next to impossible – it just does. Silly, strange, and kinda cool, you really have to watch for yourself to truly understand why The Wraith has somehow withstood the test of time since it first raced onto movie screens back in 1986.
A young man named Jamie was getting it on with his girlfriend Keri when some thugs ran in and stabbed him to death. She never saw who did it because they covered her face. A year or so has passed and nobody knows who killed Jamie. Dim bulb Keri (Sherilyn Fenn in her first starring role, as lovely as her character is dumb), now forced to live under the insanely jealous eye of the ruthless leader of the road pirates, Packard Walsh (future Alpha Dog director Nick Cassavetes, playing a fairly convincing creep), remains ever clueless. Jamie’s brother Billy hasn’t much of a clue either. The Sheriff (Randy Quaid, I got the sense he never had much of an idea what the actual plot of the movie was) has yet to arrest any suspects in the murder.
You’d think it would be fairly obvious to everyone that Jamie was murdered by the only people in town known for being violent deviants led by a guy prone to threatening people with a knife, a guy who has since claimed the victim’s girlfriend as his personal property. This doesn’t strike me as a complex Agatha Christie mystery here.
A guy named Jake (a pre-Platoon Charlie Sheen in his first starring role, at times appearing so emotionally detached from reality he may not have been aware he was even appearing in a movie) putters into town on his moped and immediately begins insinuating himself into Keri’s life. She and Billy both think there is something familiar about this nearly emotionless stranger.
This mysterious one-of-a-kind Turbo Interceptor car suddenly appears, and these sociopathic Arizona road racing pirates deduce that whoever the mystery driver is wants to race one of them for pink slips simply by pulling up and revving his motor. They never see or speak to the driver or have any idea who it is or where they and their state-of-the-art supercar came from, but Packard assumes he’s just a teenage hot-rodder trying to show them up. After their first guy gets killed racing the wraith, the Turbo Interceptor pulls up again and they do it all over again as if this is just some teenager in a hot rod trying to make them look bad. This is just a small example of what I mean when I wrote that characters rarely behave the way normal people would under the circumstances.
As members of Packard’s gang with names like Oggie, Skank, and Gutterball suffer explosive automotive death that leaves their bodies behind naked and unscathed with blackened eyes, the non-homicidal automotive technical wizard of the gang, Rughead (Clint Howard with Eraserhead hair), deduces that the mystery driver is a wraith, a vengeful spirit, back for revenge.
What exactly makes one immediately think vengeful spirit? When you think about wraiths, you don’t typically envision a guy in leather and a helmet driving a space age sports car and using it to kamikaze victims. It almost seems more sci-fi, more extraterrestrial in nature, especially when the car materializes and dematerializes into whizzing balls of light and anything that collides with the wraith-mobile explodes real good. On a totally wacko theological level, what sort of god decides to send a random teenager murdered while engaging in pre-marital sex with his girlfriend back down to earth in a futuristic racecar for the sole purpose of getting his girl back and killing the punks that stole your life? I want to worship that god.
I don’t think I’m spoiling anything here by revealing that Sheen’s character is Jamie reincarnated or something. When you see the knife wound scars all over Jake’s back in his second scene, any mystery is out the window except for the characters in the film. He’s back for his girl and for revenge. Billy befriends Jake, but Jamie reborn doesn’t really seem all that concerned about his bro.
That brings me to something about the film’s ending I have always found odd. For this I will throw up a SPOILER WARNING, so skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want to know how it ends. After Packard and his gang are dead, Jake/Jamie will not be returning to his afterlife. Rather he plans to ride off out of town on his scooter with Keri to start a new life together. That alone could be considered something of a head scratcher all things considered. But first he shows up at Billy’s place of employment, tells him he’s leaving town, and has a parting gift for his brother – the Turbo Interceptor. I’ve always wondered is he really gifting his brother with this supernatural vehicle or is he framing his brother for the murders he committed? Think about it. The only evidence Sheriff Randy Quaid has to go on in the deaths of Packard’s gang is this very distinct automobile that Billy will now be driving around town in. I have wondered that since I first saw The Wraith as a kid. Maybe I just think too much.
While Lionsgate’s special edition DVD comes loaded with extras, I still found myself a little disappointed and not just because Sheen, Fenn, Cassavetes, and Quaid are all MIA here.
The audio commentary with writer-director Mike Marvin could have desperately used some extra voices to fill in the myriad of dead spots when Marvin says nothing for extended periods of time. For all the insight into the making of the film and what a troubled production it often was, Marvin doesn’t exactly make for the most compelling speaker with his constant ummm’s and long pauses in between sentences and even mid-thought.
“Tales from the Desert” is a short interview with Marvin that’s mostly him reiterating stuff he already said on the commentary. A good chunk of it focuses on how Marvin spent a few years as an unemployable pariah following the death of a camera operator while filming a car race scene.
The theatrical trailer, naturally.
“Rughead Speaks” is an interview with Clint Howard that deals more with his career as a cult actor than about the filming of The Wraith.
“Future Car Revealed” you would think would be all about the Dodge Turbo Interceptor car used in the film. Not really. Much of this short subject focuses more on that fatal camera car crash and the crew members interviewed expressing their amazement that the movie has since amassed a worldwide fandom, let alone being remembered at all. That genuine surprise that The Wraith remains popular even to this day is echoed by everyone interviewed for the disc.
Mike Marvin mentions in the audio commentary that he has had offers for a possible remake or sequel and has penned the scripts for two potential Wraith follow-ups. I can easily see a big screen remake or a name-only DVD sequel becoming a reality if this special edition DVD sells well, but for a new generation that would probably watch such a remake or sequel and dismiss it as a The Fast & The Furious meets The Crow rip-off, I just can’t imagine whatever it is that makes The Wraith such a unique and enjoyable wedge of 1980’s turbo-charged cheese is something you can successfully replicate today.
3 out of 5
2 1/2 out of 5
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