I think that the only people who’ve ever heard of this extremely obscure b-movie are mostly folks who are my age. Folks who are not only my age, but also belong to my demographic: 30-somethings who spent their childhoods in the 1980’s through the mid-90’s playing video games, reading comic books and watching virtually anything that came on the idiot box. I first saw this movie at my babysitter’s house when I was a four-year-old fanboy-in-training. Back then, I didn’t have an inkling for what acting was or how integral it can be to a serious film. I just had a tendency for reflexively committing to memory copious amounts of movie scenes and dialogue; as well as a predilection towards films with plenty of action, explosions, fights and a heavy soundtrack to back it up. Despite its cons, even in retrospect, The Wraith continues to live up to my childhood predilections.
There isn’t much to the story. It has plenty of archetypal elements of a fantasy: Hero, Villain, the Girl, a Tragedy, a Showdown, and a Happy Ending (for some). In the fictional small town of Brooks, AZ, a gang of punks led by Packard Walsh (Nick Cassavetes) intimidate drivers into drag-racing. The loser is forced to forfeit their vehicle. Nevermind that Packard and his boys often cheat to win, even with the enhancements to their own cars, the entire town fears them. Enter Jake Kesey.
Jake (played by Charlie Sheen) arrives in town on a motorbike and forms an instant rapport with Keri Johnson (Sherilyn Fenn), whom Packard has claimed as his. Keri’s last boyfriend, Jamie was mysteriously murdered sometime ago and shares an almost-uncanny resemblance to Jake. Meanwhile, Jake’s arrival coincides with the appearance of a jet-black Dodge Turbo-Interceptor. The driver silently issues challenges to Packard and his gang to race him, which end with the mysterious Wraith systematically eliminating Packard’s gang one-by-one.
Loomis (Randy Quaid), head of the town’s sheriff department, finally catches a break against Packard after the Wraith’s first race. As willing as Sheriff Loomis is to uphold the law, he and his men are reluctant to take action since the Wraith is targeting only Packard’s crew. Also, the character twist regarding the Wraith’s identity should be clear to the audience within the first 20 minutes of the film.
This is a b-movie for certain, so serious acting has no meaning here despite the cast. The characters are all one-dimensional, at most. Pre-fame Charlie Sheen is cast as the titular character (1/3 of him, technically) and adds a laid-back, almost James Dean quality to it. Randy Quaid is the small-town Sheriff who definitely fits the stereotypical bill of a hard-nosed lawman. And Sherilyn Fenn is the damsel in distress.
But the most intriguing characters in the film are Packard and his gang. It’s supposed to be a murderous group of individuals, but their wardrobe and tendencies alone make them a hodgepodged motley crew whose membership is as laughable as it is questionable:
Packard Walsh (Nick Cassavetes): Leader. Wears a cool-looking, but completely unnecessary leather jacket in Arizona heat. Psychopathic, cares nothing for his group or even himself. When one of his group dies, he shrugs it off as “no loss, believe me”.
Rughead (Clint ‘Hey, it’s that guy!’ Howard): The officiator of their drag races and the in-house tech-expert. He’s the only one in the group with brains and a conscience.
Oggie Fisher (Griffin O’Neal): Despite his family’s acting (and illicit pharmaceutical) pedigree, this is the only film I’ve seen him in. Filled with a testosterone level that was bigger than his ridiculous trench coat, his character had the dubious honor of being the first to die.
Minty (Chris Nash): Was he supposed to be a Wall Street accountant with a penchant for murder and fast cars? Looks like. When managing the gang’s funds from selling stolen vehicles, he wore glasses, a tax-accountant’s visor and a preppy-style sweater. When out with the gang, he wore a varsity letterman’s jacket rounded out with khaki slacks and suede dress shoes. His race against the Wraith was the film’s best action sequence.
Skank & Gutterboy (David Sherrill & Jamie Bozian): A couple of White-Trash fashion victims who spend most of the movie drinking car engine fluid. They’re the films comedic-relief.
You’ve got a cool opening with comets coming down from the sky. Then in a suspenseful rush, they coalesce to form into this:
You also have an out-of-print pop/glam-metal soundtrack (thank God for the Baltimore Comic-Con where you can find these kind of things) which provides the backdrop to plenty of good-choreographed racing scenes (Ozzy Osborne and Lion, come to mind). A revenge story at heart, that film makes you root against the villains even though they’re clearly cardboard cut-outs. The race car scenes will get car-buff’s talking for hours about the vehicular veracity and possible anachronisms in that context. For this viewer, those scenes were as much about the music, the attractiveness of the vehicles, the police chases, as well as the literally explosive payoff at the end of each scene, such as this one.
Lastly, Sherilyn Fenn is in this film. Sherilyn Fenn.
I would’ve liked if they explained more about the Wraith’s character. All the viewer knows is that he has a faster car than the people he races against, he’s definitely of supernatural origin, and has braces (the kind you see on handicapped individuals) that disappear from his concealed body after each kill. If they did an apocryphal comic or novel of this film, such issues need explanations and characters need to be more fleshed out. And, even though I know it’s fantasy and belief needs to be suspended, I’d love to know how Sherilyn Fenn’s character lived alone in a single-family home in the suburbs despite being a roller-skating fast-food waitress.
I still love this movie despite the logical fallacies. It’s the kind you tend to view on a lazy Saturday afternoon. It’s worth seeing since it has its share of laughs, 80’s rock, explosions, plenty of Sherilyn Fenn and all other sorts of media testosterone-boosters. In light of those elements and its obscurity, it almost ventures into the territory of ‘guilty pleasure’. In retrospect, I view it as a fusion that became something of a prototype.
Mike Marvin’s The Wraith is what High Plains Drifterwould’ve been if the latter was a ghost story that involved race cars. It’s a prototype to the Fast-&-The Furiousseries as they share and similarly convey the same four elements of action: Fast Cars, Danger, Fire & Knives (Incidentally, yes that’s the title of an Aesop Rock album, I know). Given my cons of the film, I wouldn’t be against Hollywood adding this film to their current trend of remaking 80’s movies. But the problem is, they already did that back in 1994. They called it The Crow.