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DIRECTOR: Mike Marvin RELEASE DATE: November 21, 1986 RATING (US): R
CAST: Charlie Sheen, Sherilyn Fenn, Nick Cassavetes, Randy Quaid et al.
// review by Jeff

Vehicular manslaughter at every turn!

My apologies if I am not completely present for this review. You see, I've had my face buried in my hands for hours, and I've been unable to pry my confused, bewildered, flustered visage from the skin of my palms. I have just watched "The Wraith", a truly bizarre supernatural gaffe of a movie from 1986, and I honestly can't tell yet whether this film was extremely awful or actually good. Once I clear my head of all lingering thoughts and doubts, perhaps we can come to a conclusion.

Picture this: Packard Walsh and his gang of lowlife gutless followers have a grip on Brooks, Arizona. They certainly don't run the place, but they do corner the market on vehicular theft. They force people with snazzy cars to drag race, subjecting the owners to the penalty that if they lose the race, they have to hand over the title (the "pink slip") of their car. In ne'er-do-well fashion, the gang members cheat. This gives them a power overload that makes this gang think they are above the law and almighty. This is especially apparent with Packard's relationship with Keri, his proclaimed "girlfriend", though she is really only around of fear and coercion. The movie doesn't take long to set him up as the ultimate jerk; after about ten seconds of hearing him on screen, you'll want this guy to fry.

Packard suffers from extreme jealousy; no one can even talk to Keri without being threatened or forced into that drag racing scheme. He carries around a switchblade and is not afraid to pull it out on anyone who even remotely poses a threat — and this includes Keri herself. To prove this point, we're shown that Keri's actual boyfriend, Jamie Hankins, was killed by Packard and his crew when they are caught together making love.

Now all this sounds reasonable, and nothing yet is strange. That is, until we discover the Wraith. After quite the impressive light show in the sky (for 1986, that was pretty cool to watch), he appears: a being dressed in dark futurismo armor and a helmet reminiscent of stereotypical astronaut fashion. His armor is covered in bracing used of trauma victims. Okay, so it's a bit of an alien movie. No big deal. But you have to remember: this is the 80s. The Wraith could not appear without having a vehicle to drive, to coincide with the incessant car theme of Packard's gang. And what better vehicle to use than a Dodge M4S Turbo Interceptor, painted entirely black and able to disappear and reappear at will, as well as withstand heavy impact with no visible damage. The Wraith and his car are invincible without question. Never in the movie does he ever lose a race or concede in a fight. Whenever the Wraith appears, just assume he will not be hurt or fail his mission. Rarely is he seen on his own, usually relying on the Turbo Interceptor to do his dirty work. At one point, however, he enters the gang's garage and just shoots up the place. (Granted, no one makes any attempt to stop this crazed marksman. Also, the Wraith only attacks cars and not people.)

Over time, the Wraith has his sweet revenge on the gang members by killing them off. First is some guy named Oggie, killed by being run off the road and down a hill where his car explodes. Next is Minty (yeah, real fresh), who dies from a direct collision into a cliffside, after which time HIS car is incinerated. Then there are these two goofballs, Skank and Gutterboy. I don't know what to make of these two. They are clearly the comic relief. They're loyal to Packard but smart as packing peanuts. Skank is often seen drinking hydraulic fluid; maybe THAT has something to do with his limited capacities. Also, he is officially the quintessential 80s punk, rocking a multicoloured mohawk and sporting a thick layer of blue eyeshadow around his eyes. That's the kind of style you get when you're high on mechanical chemicals. They get killed as well when the Wraith drives his car right into the garage. Packard is the last one to take the Wraith's racing challenge and is killed as well. Each of the bodies are found intact, just with their eyeballs removed from the sockets, because... well, why not?

Oh, and did I mention Charlie Sheen's in this one? The thing is, Charlie Sheen himself doesn't appear very often in the movie, yet he gets top billing. He was becoming a big name in 1986, with other films like Platoon and Ferris Bueller's Day Off securing his place in Hollywood. But he appears for less than ten minutes of this movie altogether. He usually just shows up to act suave or occasionally get Keri topless in a Oh, wait, I'm wrong. He appears more...as the Wraith! (Tardy Spoiler Alert.) If it isn't made immediately apparent early on, the Wraith is revealed to be Jake Kesey, a new rebel in town on a colourful motorbike. Of course, soon we learn that Jake/The Wraith is little more than the reincarnation of Jamie Hankins...er, as a phantom with wicked cool taste in cars and a bone to pick with the group of thugs that iced him mid-thrust.

And heck, why not have synthesized music and Mötley Crüe's "Smokin' In The Boys Room" play in the background while we're at it, just to drive that 1980s point home? They threw in a LOT of 80s rock, including music by Ozzy Osbourne, Billy Idol, and Robert Palmer, among others.

The acting here hardly qualifies as Oscar-worthy, but there's some entertainment value to be had. Charlie Sheen may be stiff as a board with some gag-worthy dialogue, but Nick Cassavetes as the gang leader Packard Walsh does a great job at making his character as despisable as humanly possible. There is no empathy to be had for this guy at all. Strange as it is, I also have to give credit to David Sherrill for making the chemically vivid Skank. As eccentric and off-the-wall this character is, Sherrill nails it. (Or maybe Sherrill really IS like him. That would be frightening that a person could be so brainless in reality. Hmmmm.) Also of note is Clint Howard as the technical genius but overall pushover Rughead, notable mostly for his wimpiness and having the tallest, poufiest hair in the film, as well as Sherilyn Fenn's competent portrayal of the docile but determined Keri Johnson. Too bad she had to be exploited with a couple of superfluous topless scenes. Plus, they threw in Randy Quaid as the town sheriff, but he's about as useful as a floppy tuna in solving this case.

You know what? Now that I've emptied all my thoughts out, The Wraith wasn't so bad. As goofy as the premise is, I was amazed by how cheesy it was at times, but we can partially blame the script on occasionally steering into bland territory for that one. For a sci-fi flick that doesn't need to be taken seriously on every level, The Wraith is a solid Saturday night entertainer.


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