07 April 2010

Movie Review: The Wraith

The Wraith (1986)
Written and Directed by Mike Marvin. Starring Charlie Sheen, Sherilyn Fenn, Nick Cassavetes, Dennis Quaid, Clint Howard.

I’ve waited many years to watch this film. It haunted me since I first saw the VHS box at the video store where I worked during high school. A lonely road snaking into a purple twilight, teens cowering together in the front, the promise of ghost car and a sinister rider bent on revenge in the wasted desert….

Actually, I didn’t anticipate anything good. This was one of those “missed ‘80s genre pictures” that I developed a fascination with simply because it was odd and rare and I recalled the video art. I had to wait until 2010 for a decent DVD release before I was able to finally watch the low-budget bonanza of what might have happened if John Hughes had directed Mad Max.

Is The Wraith a good film? No, not by any normal standards of dramatic filmmaking. Is it worth watching? Big “yes” and lame college high-five to that. This is an ‘80s fantasy cheese-fest with a killer cast of people who are still getting work. It’s a bit like an R-rated Knight Rider blended with a teen version of High Plains Drifter and spackled all over with that squeaky clean look of the John Hughes decade that makes it impossible to take anything about its supernatural revenge story seriously for even a moment.

When you come down to it, if The Wraith were made in any other decade, it would be unwatchable. But the ‘80s gets credit for the save. If you love movies of the decade of greed and haven’t caught The Wraith yet, you’ve got a great evening in front of your 16x9 TV coming up. Get Wall Street out of the DVD player and give the other Charlie Sheen a spin for a bit. Wall Street will always be waiting for you. (You do own a copy, right?)

By writer-director Mike Marvin’s own admission, Clint Eastwood’s classic weird Western High Plains Drifter was the inspiration for The Wraith. This is one of my favorite films, so I slipped easily into The Wraith’s premise of a murdered man who returns in another body and with supernatural powers to stylishly execute those responsible for his death. The script makes some pretense about hiding the identity of the man in the black body suit and helmet who drives the mystery black Dodge along the southern Arizona desert two-lane blacktops, but it’s really only pretense. Ten minutes in, the only people are who won’t be aware what’s going on are those who started the DVD accidentally at Chapter 4. And they’ll have it figured out by Chapter 5.

In the town of Brooks, AZ (a.k.a. the outskirts of Tucson before the golf course invasion), a terror rides the two-lane desert roads: Packard Walsh! [Cue sinister trumpet sting.] Packard (Nick Cassavetes) and his gang of punks cruise the desert roads, looking to force people to race for their automobile pink slips. This makes the whole town scared of him. Although Packard is hardly a terrifying bully even though he wears a vest with no shirt, Brooks apparently consists of only teenagers, a burger joint, and the sheriff (Randy Quaid), so getting them all a-quivering with fear is not that difficult.

But Packard never expected to have . . . The Wraith! . . . ride into town on three glowing balls. The black car and its leather-clad and face-shielded inhabitant take up Packard’s racing challenges, and each time one of Packard’s buddies dies and the Wraith’s car supernaturally reconstructs itself.

At the same time, in what can only be a coincidence with no connection at all to the mysterious Wraith, suave Jake Kesey rolls into Brooks on a motorcycle and wearing a vest with no shirt. This immediately makes sweet-n-hot local girl Keri (Sherilyn Fenn) swoon over him. However, Packard has claim on Kerry, even though she hates him because she believes Packard killed Jamie, a boy she was dating.

I wonder if writer and director Mike Marvin thought that the Wraith’s identity might surprise viewers. Anyone who read the blurb on the back of the DVD keep case would figure out in moments what’s actually going on. The flashbacks to Jamie’s death, the hallucinations, and the obvious supernatural avenger aspect of the Wraith and his phantom car telegraph everything—but since you don’t need the surprise to enjoy the ‘80s cheese, perhaps no mystery was ever intended.

Where The Wraith fails as a serious movie is that it has its tone all wrong. What should be a chilling tale of supernatural retribution instead has the dross of a skateboard movie or a rock musical. Just take a glance at High Plains Drifter (actually, watch the whole thing; it’s a classic) and you’ll notice it is saturated with fear, guilt, and the aura of hell-spawned vengeance. The Wraith is a chirpy, day-glo music video in comparison. It’s so clean it squeaks if you run your shammy over it. Maybe it’s too many scenes by sunlight, maybe it’s Charlie Sheen’s idol matinee pose, or maybe it’s the script’s desultory waving away of all potential mystery in a cute finale, but The Wraith can’t live up to the tone of its opening effects scene or the ethereal promise of its poster.
A good example of the film squandering a spooky possibility is the way it forgets to carry through with the way the Wraith mutilates his victims. The bodies miraculously survive their fiery car-wreck with no burn damage, but the corpses are bone white with the eyes removed. No explanation for this is ever given, and after the first body, the movie barely dwells on it or its implication. It floats in limbo, like an import from another movie.

The only performance in The Wraith that I can tag as a “good” performance—i.e. a realistic and believable one—is Randy Quaid as Sheriff Loomis. Quaid is the sole older actor in the main cast, and so he has to carry around the authority. He pulls it off with the same effortless skill that he shows in everything he appears in. Quaid is one of the most underrated character actors in the business; I keep wondering when he’ll finally break out in some Oscar-pimped role.

The chemistry between Charlie Sheen and Sherilyn Fenn is close to zero; the characters are together because they’re both young and good-looking and the story requires it. However, I felt chemistry with Sherilyn Fenn, and therefore it was all right with me.

It’s Packard Walsh’s gang of goofballs that really deserves attention, and where The Wraith manages to work in spite of itself. This wrecking crew is hysterically unthreatening but wonderfully bonkers, like an elementary school rendition of the Toecutter’s gang in Mad Max. Nick Cassavetes is dull—I can see why he switched to directing—but everybody else is pricelessly over-the-top and into the gonzo-theater zone. The mentally incapacitated pair of Skank (David Sherrill) and Gutterboy (Jamie Bozian) have to be seen to be believed. Try to imagine the most aggravating “geek” character from an ‘80s high school comedy. Now multiple by five. Now dress in punk rags. Multiply by five again. Now you have Skank and Gutterboy. Enjoy! And then there’s the cult-ready Clint Howard as Rughead, topped with a Tom Waits pompadour. He’s the “nice bad guy” who does all the mechanical wizardry for Packard’s Punks and doesn’t really want to hurt anybody. Clint Howard in an interview on the DVD guesses that the only reason Rughead hangs out with the gang is because they must have some really good drugs. Considering how they all act, I’ll accept that explanation.

The Wraith’s phantom car is modified from a 1984 Dodge M4S prototype sports coupe featuring a Trans Four OHC 8 valve I4 Engine. I have no idea what any of that means; I just looked it up and copied n’ pasted. The car looks great from the front and during the night scenes, but in broad daylight and from the side the flimsy modifications appear obvious. It’s definitely what would’ve turned on sports car lovers of 1986, but the retro-muscle car fans of today might find themselves underwhelmed. I personally prefer the 1977 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am in Packard’s gang; but that one can’t turn itself into ball lightning and reconstruct itself, so it loses.

The car stunt scenes are well-shot and choreographed, although there’s no single spectacular scene—no “Chariot Race” as Merian C. Cooper would say. The camerawork consists of a lot of road-level yellow-line shots all done at actual speed, and there’s almost no fakery involved in any of it; I could detect little camera undercranking. The different races don’t change much, but they aren’t boring either. There’s a beauty to the twisted and rocky southern Arizona desert that makes it the perfect backdrop for this kind of backroad racing

I would wager that a big chunk of the budget for The Wraith went to licensing music. The soundtrack boasts some hefty catalog titles from Motley Crüe, Robert Palmer, Billy Idol (“Rebel Yell,” allright!), Ozzy Osbourne, and Bonnie Tyler. The parade of hits can get a touch distracting at times, but at least we have a film where the characters are listening to popular music that people actually liked at the time. So many low-budget films of the decade have soundtracks of bogus pop that even the lamest kids would have turned off.

The new DVD of The Wraith comes with an audio commentary from writer-director Mike Marvin and two interview featurettes with Marvin and Clint Howard. Howard is a cut-up and blast to listen to, especially when he says that he likes giving someone his Social Security number for the purpose of getting paid. He admits he’s had a strange career, but doesn’t regret any of it and loves that he’s gotten to work with some wonderful people; he especially liked working with Randy Quaid.

Mike Marvin’s interview is fascinating because of its brutal honesty. He describes the horrors he had with his producer on The Wraith and states bluntly that those on the producer-side of the film “had no interest in making a good movie” and low-balled him whenever possible. He blames the film’s relative invisibility when it premiered on the cheap route the producer went with striking prints, having them made out of Canada with an awful sound mix that made the movie impossible to listen to. Marvin also deals with the elephant in the room: the death of cameraman Bruce Ingram during the shooting of a stunt sequence. Marvin states that he was blamed for the accident, and it nearly squashed his career—he didn’t direct anything for another three years, and was removed from at least one project when its backers found out he had directed The Wraith. However, it sounds as if Mike Marvin enjoyed working with his cast and crew on the set, despite the problems, and I found myself really liking the guy and hoping that most of what doesn’t work about The Wraith was due to the money pressures. It sounds like Marvin got the same rotten deal as Don Coscarelli got on Beastmaster.

The DVD supplementals also informed me that The Wraith has a large cult following. That’s news to me; I thought until now I was one of the few who had even heard of it or remembered it was released. It is perfect cult film material, so the “cult film rumors” are probably true and I never looked hard enough to find out about it. Honestly, there was no reason to until this DVD came out and I could finally see the film in all its dopey wonder.