The Wraith, the 1986 flick from writer/director Mike Marvin, is in stiff competition with Road House for the most relentlessly ’80s movie in the Watchability Index. The music, the fashion, the bright colors, the bitchin’ cars, the way the film is shot, and the raspy-voiced presence of Charlie Sheen will all transport the viewer back to the heady days of mid-1980s Tucson, Arizona.
This film is also a throwback to the teen dramas of the 1950s. The local youths are consumed by their dramas, and, like all good teen flicks, the only adult with significant presence in the film is the local sheriff.
Charlie Sheen stars as the mysterious Jake Kesey, a young man who shows up in town to upset the current order established by local gang leader, thief, and murderer, Packard Walsh (Nick Cassavetes).
Packard and his gang make their money by forcing people with hot cars into title for title drag races on desert roads, cheating to make sure his gang always wins. Then he and his crew chop the cars and sell for parts. What he does is so blatant and so illegal that out here in the real world his gang would all be in prison, but in movieland Sheriff Loomis (Randy Quaid) is a feckless oaf, all bark and no bite.
As for Kesey, viewers know a lot more about him than Packard and his crew. Kesey, as revealed early on, is the vengeful spirit of a local that Packard and his crew murdered, so Packard could hook up with his girlfriend, Keri Johnson (Sherilyn Fenn). He looks different in this incarnation, so he can operate incognito.
Kesey gets his revenge by appearing as the wraith of the title — a Stig-like apparition who drives a car that puts KITT to shame. That car is played by a Dodge M4S, which, well, words don’t do justice, so here it is:
Have I mentioned that this movie is relentlessly ’80s? What a wild and perfect vehicle for a flick like this. I’m impressed that Marvin and company managed to get ahold of one these rare cars for filming (any shots where the vehicle was placed in danger used a mock up or a shell on a dune buggy).
One thing I love about the car is that it’s supposed to be something supernatural, and unknown on Earth until it appears in the desert, yet although decals were removed, Marvin made no effort to disguise the prominent Chrysler logo on the front. That’s some quality shitty filmmaking.
Anyway, the wraith baits Packard’s gang into deadly street races, eliminating them in explosive fashion, one by one, until denouement. The ending will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever seen a movie.
In between, we’re treated to Packard being a bully and a potential rapist, Kesey being hot and mysterious, Keri being the vulnerable love interest, and more teen movie clichés than all of John Hughes’s movies put together. Well, maybe not that many, but potential viewers get the idea.
Cassavetes gave the best performance in the movie. He was slime personified, and carried it well. There isn’t a single instance in this movie where he isn’t being an asshole, and it’s all believable.
Packard’s gang is quite the treat, as well. Marvin wasn’t going for realism, so a few of them are standouts of absurdity.
There’s David Sherrill as Skank, who looks like a latter-day London punk after the fashion became more important than the music, and who has a substance abuse problem. The substances? Vehicle fluids. He huffs WD-40 and drinks brake fluid to get off, among other nasty stuff.
Jamie Bozian plays Gutterboy, who clings to Skank like a barnacle and looks like he hasn’t showered or brushed his teeth once in his life. His character is so stupid it’s amazing he hasn’t forgotten how to breathe.
And then there’s immortal character actor Clint Howard as Rughead, a mechanic whose coiffure is an homage to Jack Nance in Eraserhead. Howard is outrageous, but the amazing thing is that, for us shitty movie fans who have seen much of his oeuvre, it’s a comparatively restrained performance. This flick could have used him a little more.
The Wraith is 93 minutes of stupid fun. It’s a wonderful update of 1950s teen flicks for the ’80s, featuring, in Fenn and Sheen, two stars who were fixtures of young Hollywood at the time. The Wraith soars high in the Watchability Index, taking over the #12 spot from Brain Damage. It’s shitty gold.