I first discovered Mike Marvin’s “The Wraith” (1986) during college, when a local Denver TV station would air anything it wanted as a midnight movie.
I used to tape whatever B or Z-list movie would run at midnight on my VCR and watch it the next day. The channel programmer never disappointed with his offbeat selection, which ranged from low grade-gangster movies, oddities like Francis Ford Coppola’s “Gardens of Stone” or bad comedies.
After recording “The Wraith,” I ceased my weekly ritual of recording new selections off the channel and just re-watched “The Wraith” until I finally had to find my own VHS copy that didn’t have commercial breaks and wasn’t worn from dozens of viewings.
“The Wraith” begins with cheesy animation, a great sign for any B-movie. We see a lightning bolt ascend to an Arizona landscape, bouncing around traffic signs and coming together to create…The Wraith, a helmet-wearing mystery rider posing next to his Dodge Turbo Interceptor (yes, it’s a real car). The title character’s introduction resembles a glossy car commercial.
Then, the actual movie begins, in which we see how a small town is terrorized by an abusive jerk named Packard Walsh (Nick Cassavetes) who won’t allow anyone to gaze their peepers on his girlfriend Keri (Sherilyn Fenn). Jake (Charlie Sheen) drifts into town and shows interest in Keri, which causes Packard Walsh (a movie villain name so good, it bears repeating in its entirety) to go ballistic.
Meanwhile, The Wraith starts making random appearances in town, stalking Packard Walsh’s gang, who resemble “Mad Max” extras with only a fraction of a brain. Why is The Wraith taking on Packard Walsh’s goons? Does it have to do something with the way Packard Walsh acquires everything in town, including Keri?
“The Wraith” is an irresistible guilty pleasure, in which a B-movie script with good car chase sequences is the hook, but far from the only thing here that works. This juxtaposition of a ’60s teen biker flick with an ’80s teen drama, nouveau western, and containing quasi-sci-fi/horror elements may not be good for your cinematic health, but you’ll be glad you wolfed it down.
Here it’s is the cinematic equivalent of a corndog.
It was shot in Tucson but set in “Brooks, Arizona” (whether the town is named after Mel or Albert, the movie never tells us). The budget on the film is so low, Brooks, AZ has a swimming hole, a Big Kay’s burger joint, one strip of suburbia and lots of desert roads.
Curiously missing: there’s almost no adults or any extras outside of the core ensemble cast.
FAST FACT: Director Mike Marvin told Dread Central in 2010 that he wanted Johnny Depp to play the role that eventually went to Griffin O’Neal, son of Ryan O’Neal, but the studio had the final say.
There are striking plot similarities to “The Crow,” particularly James O’Barr’s 1989 graphic novel (which inspired the 1994 film): a couple is murdered on the side of the road by a violent and inebriated gang, both contain a gang character named “Skank” and deal with a vigilante who is back for revenge against a gang that killed him and fights back using supernatural means.
I’ve never heard O’Barr mention “The Wraith” as an influence in any interviews, so the jury’s out if he ever saw the film or not.
A bigger question is how a movie with this much nudity and graphic violence ever got a PG-13 rating? A brutal but incomprehensible flashback, depicting the murder that sets the story in motion, would have inspired the MPAA to give most movies an R-rating, but this one managed to get a pass.
Ah, the ’80s.
The baby-faced Sheen is barely in this, which he probably preferred: 1986 was also the year of his memorable cameo in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and his starring role in Oliver Stone’s blockbuster and Best Picture winner “Platoon.” Sheen is never asked about “The Wraith,” which is probably how he prefers it.
Fenn is dazzling, even in this, and Cassavetes (who later became, no joke, the director of “The Notebook”) is very good playing a deplorable human being.
Clint Howard’s gloriously nutty performance is the film’s most iconic: Howard’s “Rughead” identifies the title character by stating, “A wraith, a ghost, an evil spirit and it ain’t cool!” Rughead later declares, “I ain’t go no beef with no Wraith!”
Thank goodness Randy Quaid is in this. Playing the seen-it-all sheriff who enjoys taunting Packard Walsh’s gang and is flummoxed by the Wraith sightings in his tiny town, Quaid gives authority and plausibility to dialog that would baffle the likes of Meryl Streep.
Here’s an example of a few lines Quaid manages to make sound natural:
“There’s a kid out there using his car to kill people” and “Forget it, Murphy, roadblocks can’t stop something that won’t be stopped.”
The Packard Walsh gang is sleazy and homophobic, letting loose the casual sexism and gay slurs — unlike most ’80s teen films (namely the comedies) made during this age, these bits are meant to be despicable. The great song soundtrack sports Ozzy Osbourne, Motley Crue, Billy Idol, Robert Palmer and Bonnie Tyler (trust me, I’ve got the LP and it RULES!).
The most important production credit is “Stunts Designed and Coordinated by Buddy Joe Hooker,” as Hooker not only pulls off some gnarly auto pursuits and mashups but is responsible for the most legendary scenes from “Hooper” (1977) and “To Live and Die in L.A.” (1985).
Both unintentionally hilarious and riveting, “The Wraith” is too goofy to be taken seriously but too entertaining and accomplished where it counts to be dismissible.