Lionsgate // 1986 // 93 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // March 2nd, 2010
He's not from around here.
Before his stints in rehab...before his run-ins with the cops...before the 9/11 conspiracies and Obama fan fiction...before the laugh track and the other one-and-a-half men...Charlie Sheen was The Wraith!
An Arizona town is being overrun with drag-racing car thieves, led by the sociopathic Packard Smith (Nick Cassavetes, Face/Off). He's obsessed with Keri (Sherilyn Fenn, Twin Peaks), a pretty young waitress at the local burger joint whose boyfriend was killed by Packard and his gang. Then, Jacke Kesey (Charlie Sheen, The Big Bounce) a mysterious new guy shows up in town and begins vying for Keri's affection -- coincidentally around the same time that a dark, supernatural figure with a one-of-a-kind car appears from the sky to take revenge on Packard's gang. Who is this mysterious ghost-like figure known as The Wraith?
Let's try an experiment. When I type The Wraith into Amazon, I get suggestions for other titles based on what previous customers who have bought The Wraith have also purchased: Maximum Overdrive, My Science Project, Men at Work, Howard the Duck, Tuff Turf, Gleaming the Cube, Solarbabies, The Heavenly Kid and Just One of the Guys. If you like any or all of those movies, there's a good chance you're going to dig The Wraith. If, on the other hand, you've got a low tolerance for '80s genre silliness, I suggest you stop reading now. I'm sure you've got some Jane Austen to catch up on, Snobby Snobberson.
If vampires had The Lost Boys and lycanthropes ruled Teen Wolf Too, then The Wraith finally gives vengeance-seeking, drag-racing ghosts their due. Essentially ripping off High Plains Drifter (and then itself being ripped off for The Crow, facts that writer/director Mike Marvin acknowledges in the supplemental section), the film is a tremendously silly, totally watchable piece of '80s goofiness. I'm on record as having no interest in watching movies ironically, so I won't say that it's so-bad-it's-good. I will say, however, the while The Wraith is, by most standards of quality, a bad movie, but that doesn't mean it's not still good. It's a mix-up of a whole bunch of disreputable but awesome genres: sci-fi, supernatural, teen romance, drag racing movie -- The Wraith has it all. Smashing so many elements together means that none of them are properly served, but that's part of the movie's charm; even if you're not interested in the romantic angle or the car racing stuff, there's four or five other genres in there to hold your interest. It's that kind of movie.
This was the first real leading role for young Charlie Sheen (who had done supporting turns in stuff like Red Dawn and the great Lucas prior to this, and would soon become a huge star thanks to Platoon and Wall Street), and it was a time before his offscreen behavior gave every one of his performance a glaze of creepy sleaze. He's likable, but in a generic way; truth be told, Sheen's not really in the movie that much. That, perhaps, is The Wraith's biggest problem -- it doesn't know whose story it's telling. With Sheen being a mystery figure, he'd be wrong for that function. Really, it ought to be Fenn's (who's as generic as Sheen but a whole lot prettier -- not to mention topless, which came as a surprise given the movie's PG-13 rating). She's at the center of all this. It's her boyfriend who was murdered. It's she who falls in love with the mysterious new stranger. It's she who lives in fear of Packard and his car-stealing goons. She should be our way into the story, but director Marvin botches that aspect; he can't get away from the villains long enough for us to invest in any of the sympathetic characters and complete an emotional arc. Make no mistake: the villains are by far the worst part of the movie. Cassavetes preens around like he's supposed to be intimidating but isn't, and the rest of his goons (including Clint Howard by way of Thomas Dolby) overact to such a wild degree you'd swear they were ported over from a Troma movie. They're terrible, and they get the bulk of the film's running time.
For a film that's nearly 25 years old and largely forgotten, this new DVD of The Wraith looks surprisingly good. For starters, you'll finally get a proper 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer, which in and of itself is a big upgrade over the now out-of-print original full frame release from 2002. The image is solid, with colors well represented and very few detectable source flaws present. The stereo audio track is only ok; though it's likely faithful to the original presentation, nearly all the activity is handled by the front and center channels and the action gets the short shrift. Some of the car chase sequences could use more punch.
Lionsgate has provided a decent collection of bonus features to accompany this "special edition" of The Wraith. First up is a commentary by writer/director Mike Marvin, and it's a very laid-back but reasonably informative discussion of the production and the film's reception. Marvin doesn't always have positive things to say about the way the film was treated, and it can be difficult to determine if his resentment is justified or a case of sour grapes. At any rate, his talk never gets bogged down in negativity and he's pretty honest about the process of making and releasing the film, including the tragic death of a stuntman during one of the racing sequences (for which Marvin claims he was ultimately blamed, essentially wrecking his career). A 10-minute video interview with Marvin, called "Tales from the Desert," is also included, but it covers a lot of the same ground as the commentary track and splices in clips from the film almost at random -- they rarely have anything to do with what Marvin is talking about. A second retrospective interview with co-star Clint Howard, called "Rughead Speaks," is pretty amusing, mostly because Howard is such a pleasant guy and has such a sense of humor about the project.
Rounding out the bonus material is a featurette with the absolute best title I've ever seen in 12 years of watching DVDs: "Future Car Revealed! -- A Look at the Restored Dodge M4S Used in the Film and the Current Owner's Efforts to Bring it Back to Life, Including a Detailed Account of the Car's History and Creation." That's its real title. I wonder what it's about? The film's original theatrical trailer is also included.
Look, you've either got a tolerance for movies like The Wraith or you don't. As both a fan and an aficionado of '80s teen movies, I enjoyed the film on the level it was intended; it's not must-see '80s fare that transcends its limitations (like, say, Better Off Dead or UHF), but there's a lot of stuff to like about it: some badass practical stunt work, a strong soundtrack and an affection for a wide variety of past genre movies. It's the kind of film that kids of the '80s grew up watching over and over again on cable, and that kind of stuff can be fun to revisit.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13