Looking Back: The Wraith (1986)

I caught up with this 1986 action/sci-fi/race car/ horror/teen comedy/ romance/ cult classic in the most appropriate way: while I was on summer break from college, it was the midnight movie on my local Denver TV station. I used to catch every so-bad-its-great title this channel would play every Friday night, as the line up never disappointed.

Here’s the plot and, I swear, I’m not pulling your leg: Charlie Sheen plays the title character, a ghost-like teen who can transform into a car and run over those who’ve wronged him. To be more specific, he’s the reincarnation of a murdered teen and comes back to the scene of a crime (in Tucson, Arizona), where he reconnects with his former girlfriend (Sherilyn Fenn), who is now the squeeze of Packer (Nick Cassavetes), the jerk who killed him. The Wraith is clearly a supernatural being, as Sheen’s performance evokes both layers of mystery and barely concealed embarrassment.

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Let’s start with the title: we learn over the course of the film that a “wraith” is an evil spirit. Yet, in the establishing shots (which showcase some adorably cheesy animation), we see the “spirit” descend to earth from space as a comet, zoom around the Arizona night sky, smash through a billboard, break into three parts and reassemble as a helmet attired race car driver. His car: a Turbo Interceptor, “the only one in existence.” It’s odd, how this magical car, created by either spiritual or alien technology (depending on how one interprets the opening scene and the never explained origins of the title character) displays otherworldly abilities and is clearly from another world, but still has a Dodge label on it.

Despite how painfully goofy the premise is, the performances are all surprisingly good. Sheen plays the strong and silent type so well, it keeps from looking silly. He leaves that to Clint Howard, whose campy turn is among one of the canonical performances in his cult favorite filmography. Nick Cassavetes’ character is one note and fairly implausible (no one ever calls the cops on this obvious, out-in-the-open sociopath) but he makes him believably intense and loathsome. Sherilyn Fenn is a stunner who can hold the screen as well as Sheen and Randy Quaid makes his sheriff character an inspired opportunity to have fun and play the role to the hilt. Griffin O’Neal and a very young Brooke Burns turn up in small roles as well. The biggest treat is Cint Howard’s spectacled, pompadour-sporting villain- he has the best lines and acts as Packer’s evil genius for hire.

Sherilyn Fenn

I’m far from the first movie buff to point this out, but the plot has an odd similarity to “The Crow”:  as the fallen hero is murdered by a gang, in front his lover, and later comes back to life in search of revenge. One of the gang members is even named Skank. While “The Wraith” is PG-13, the flashbacks to the murder are disturbing enough to wonder how it managed to avoid an R-rating.

The same year Sheen broke out with his funny “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” cameo, starred in the Best Picture winner “Platoon” and gave a moving, subtle performance in “Lucas,” he also starred in this. There are B-movies that have starred Sheen that he should be ashamed of but this isn’t one of them. The writer/director, Mike Marvin, has made a spiffy action movie, both corny and cool in equal measure.

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The action sequences are fantastic, made with no CGI-enhancement or even practical effects. When you see a building explode into millions of little pieces, a cluster of vehicles roll on top of each other and cars exploding as they fly off of cliffs, it’s the real deal.

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“The Wraith” showcases an agreeably cheesy soundtrack (which I own on vinyl, naturally), the cornball scenes set in a swimming hole and  Big Kay’s burger joint (the only two landmarks in the film’s setting), some memorable imagery (like Sheen literally shaking off his magical powers) and (I think) intentionally hilarious dialogue. Like “Gymkata” the year before, its hard to defend as art but, as a supreme slice of junk food cinema, this is a big, greasy, delicious offering from Big Kay’s.

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