A murdered teen is resurrected as a revenge-driven alien who picks off the gang members who killed him in a series of deadly car races. That’s the basic plot of The Wraith, the 1986 film written and directed by Mike Marvin. I had an odd affinity for it growing up but hadn’t watched from the beginning in several decades. Considering it’s now free on YouTube, I decided to give it another go. I’m glad I did.
What’s great about The Wraith is once you get past the preposterous plot, it’s laser-focused and straightforward. The movie is about an alien with an incredibly cool car who races gang members in order to kill them. Period. Charlie Sheen plays the alien, “Jake,” who sort of looks like Jamie, an Arizona teen who was murdered by a gang because the gang leader is obsessed with Jamie’s girlfriend, Keri (Twin Peaks’ Sherilyn Fenn).
Jamie’s murder was never solved, and the movie opens with four mysterious balls of light coming to Earth to reform as a being in a motorcycle outfit who drives an alien-looking car. There’s never an explanation or even a hint about why any of this is happening. Why has Jamie (this “Jake” alien who has all of Jamie’s memories) been resurrected here, and now? Also, how did this alien approximation of him (it’s not an exact copy, mind you—the real Jamie is played by another actor) choose such a roundabout form of revenge as individualized car races? We never find out.
There are other questions too, but honestly? We never care. That’s in large part because the leader of the gang and primary murderer, Packard (Nick Cassavetes), is so incredibly evil. Like, shockingly evil. For starters, he and his gang kill Jamie simply for being with Keri. Now he physically and psychologically abuses her even though she doesn’t love or even like him. He pushes her around, beats people up, steals their cars...he’s a true piece of human garbage.
When Jake randomly comes to town, a mysterious new car starts showing up too. (It’s a modified Dodge M4S Turbo Interceptor, because trust me, you’re going to Google it after watching.) The car—nicknamed “The Wraith”—which we assume is being driven by Jake but isn’t actually confirmed until the end, begins racing each member of Packard’s gang one by one. He not only wins the races but forces the gang members into violent, brutal car crashes, resulting in their deaths. It’s structured a little like a video game, lots of repetition leading up to the big boss. Along the way Jake starts to fall for Keri, Randy Quaid pops up as a superfluous sheriff trying to solve the case, and everything escalates very quickly. Before you know it, it’s the Wraith versus Packard, and we bet you can guess how that turns out.
At this point, it’s important to mention that The Wraith has more than a few problems. The film is offensive even for 1986 in its handling of just about everything: sexuality, gender, you name it. It requires the audience and characters to regularly make huge leaps in logic or development, and thematically, it’s about a deep as a kiddie pool. Nevertheless, if you can forgive those flaws, it can be highly enjoyable to watch.
The fact that The Wraith never aspires to be anything other than an alien with a cool car killing bad guys gives it an unmistakable charm. You can’t help but get wrapped up in the incredibly tight storytelling and propulsive nature of the narrative. The ‘80s soundtrack and montages of teenagers flipping burgers and going to the lake are cheesy and wonderful. Cassavetes (who, many years later, directed The Notebook) gives an absolute masterclass in evil ‘80s villainy, to the point where you loathe him so much, you are practically begging for him to get what’s coming to him. Clint Howard, as Packard’s nerdy sidekick, is as good as he’s ever been, and the race scenes are robust and intense. [Note: The film is actually dedicated to a cameraman Bruce Ingram, who died during production during the filming of one of the stunts.]
Though Charlie Sheen is the film’s top-billed actor, it feels weird calling The Wraith a Charlie Sheen film simply because he’s not in it that much. He’s the main character, sure, but for most of the story, that character is in a suit with a helmet on or inside a car. So, odds are, it’s rarely actually him. Really, the main character is Cassavetes’ Packard and I think that’s the movie’s biggest problem.
In theory, the relative quality of The Wraith should be right up there with cult movies like The Last Starfighter, Explorers, or Enemy Mine. And yet, it rarely gets its due. I’d actually venture to guess that if you asked most people if they’re heard of The Wraith, they haven’t. So why? Why is this movie forgotten when it’s just as good as many of its contemporaries? I believe it’s because the movie is inherently mean. It’s a film driven by machismo, gears, and grease. No one is treated well. The true main character is a psychotic tyrant. There’s very little heart to it, at least until the very end. Even the “good guy,” Jake, is only there to kill a bunch of people. So while watching it is certainly engaging, it doesn’t leave you with many lasting memories or emotions. Which is probably why history has largely forgotten it and it took me almost 30 years to give it another shot.
I’m glad I did though. The Wraith never aspires to be more than what it is: a sci-fi racing revenge story, and in that aim, it succeeds. There’s no rhyme or reason for it, and it’s not gonna win any popularity contests, but it keeps you interested and entertained nonetheless.
- Sherilyn Fenn. Let me say it again: Sherilyn. Fenn. First of all, when I think of my crushes in the ‘80s, Sherilyn Fenn in The Wraith is right up there. Just stunning. It’s unfortunate, then, that even though she’s at the center of the entire movie, she’s written so passive and erratically. She was there when her boyfriend was murdered, but it’s never clear why she doesn’t know or think Packard did it. Then she just keeps going along with him out of fear. Later, she meets Jake and falls for him so quickly, it’s not quite believable. Eventually, she does stand up for herself but I found the whole character to just be disappointing. Thankfully, Fenn is so damn charismatic, all she has to do is smile and somehow you get why all these people are obsessed with her. I mean, one guy kills for her and another comes back to life for her! Luckily, later in her career, she found more success with Twin Peaks and the like because she’s better than The Wraith.
- One last nitpick. Many things go unexplained in The Wraith, and most are fine, but one that really bugged me was the state of the dead bodies after the car wrecks. The film spends ample time explaining that, when the gang members die in fiery car wrecks, the bodies come out unscathed, save for the removal of their eyes. And yet this never pays off in any way. It adds an alien oddity to the happenings, but ultimately it’s just a frustratingly pointless detail.
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