THE WRAITH [1986]

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Directed by:
Written by:
Starring: , , ,

USA 

AVAILABLE ON Blu-ray, DVD and Digital

RUNNING TIME: 92 mins

REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera

In the town of Brooks, Arizona, Packard Walsh and his motorised gang force drivers to drag-race so they can ‘win’ their vehicles. He views Keri Johnson as his property, even though she’s not actually his girlfriend and has no intention of being so. Did Walsh have had something do to with Keri’s boyfriend James “Jamie” Hankins being mysteriously murdered, leaving no trace? Jacob “Jake” Kesey arrives in town on a bike and befriends both Keri and Jamie’s brother William “Billy” Hankins who’s something of an outcast. And a black Dodge M4S Turbo Interceptor starts to turn up, especially around Walsh and his group so its helmeted driver can wordlessly challenge them to races which could end fatally for them, while the Turbo is able to reconstruct itself and vanish in a cloud of glowing light. Sheriff Loomis is understandably baffled. Who could this seemingly vengeance-driven person be?….

I think I’ve mentioned before how revisiting old loves from a long time ago is not always something that ends happily. We can all probably name films which we once loved before moving on, and then, when we watched them again with much older and even wiser eyes, their magic was gone and we may even have wondered what we saw in them in the first place. The Wraith is one film I recall thinking was so darn cool not long after it came out on video, right from just the cover. But after a few years I never went back to it. Did I develop a hunch that, actually, it was pretty rubbish and a new viewing would tarnish my memories of enjoying it so much back in the day? Maybe I did in a subconscious way, but finally I’ve given it a go over thirty years later. And, perhaps shockingly, I still thought it was  -well – not darn cool but certainly fairly cool. It undoubtedly screams the ’80s in both good and bad ways, yet tells its fatalistic story with a surprising amount of conviction; if made now it would probably be slightly poking fun at itself which is something I’m getting tired of and I’m sure I’m not the only one. The High Plains Drifter-inspired plot has been simplified, relocated to being around teens, and sometimes seems to be little more than an excuse for lots and lots of car racing and chasing, not to mention pop music blaring out every ten minutes or so, yet there’s something rather likable about the whole endeavour. They could have gone really dark, and at times there seem to be signs of this really dark movie, but as I type I’m rather happy that it turned out the way it did. It has a strange sort of innocence about it and it certainly never stops moving.

The idea supposedly came from Kim Masters, a studio executive at Disney, who told writer/director Mike Marvin the premise, and the two discussed and worked on it for several years. The Dodge M4S Turbo Interceptor was originally a pace car [one that sets the pace for the warm-up lap of a race or controls the pace in hazardous conditions. It was used in close-ups, while six copies were made; four non-drivable “dummies” that were destroyed during filming and two stunt cars made from moulds of the original car, though it took ages to find the moulds which then disappeared again for 15 years. The real car was used in close-ups. Shooting took place entirely in and around Tucson, Arizona, Big Kay’s Burgers being a converted beauty salon. Because of a tight timing window prior to filming Platoon, Charlie Sheen’s scenes were filmed in one day except for the flashbacks; the use of a Sheen double in those scenes ended up working better anyway. Bruce Ingram, a camera operator, died during the filming of one of the car chases, with an overloaded camera car overturning; another crew member was seriously injured. Marvin had to battle corner-cutting execs and producer John Kenemy virtually every day who just wanted everything to be shot fast and cheap, even cutting the shooting schedule. They didn’t even pay for a decent sound mix, though this seems to have been corrected for home viewing. Editor Scott Conrad reshaped the early part of the film, causing a few continuity issues that Marvin didn’t notice at first. Still, Cinema business was good even if reviews were generally poor. Said Sheen,“Oliver Stone went and saw it in the movie theater and called me so angrily afterwards. He was genuinely worried that The Wraith was going to soil peoples’ opinions of Platoon“. Marvin was unable to direct anything for three years due to Ingram’s death, then made a few teen movies and eventually soft porn under the name of Jake Kesey, Sheen’s character.

Clint Eastwood’s Stranger appeared in a dust storm. Here, we see four [animated] spheres of light descending from the night and, after some whizzing around pylons and destruction of signs, they collide at an isolated desert crossroads. Makes sense, seeing as a desert crossroads is often considered a place where you can meet supernatural beings, as well as make deals with The Devil. The collision forms the Turbo Interceptor, and we get a lot of loving closeups of the vehicle. Yes, this is a film that loves cars, and one may become tempted to think that it cares more about its cars than its people, though I don’t think it quite goes that far. We cut from the first shot of its mysterious [well, not really but hey] driver to another car driven by a guy with his admiring girlfriend beside him. Unfortunately he’s pursued and also blocked by Packard and his lot who force him to race by threatening that they’ll rape his girl. During the race, Walsh forces him off the road and thereby wins, then takes his car. This obviously happens very often, the group virtually ruling the area, even the town at least in terms of its young people. Along comes Jake, memorably introduced on his bike driving down a road from a huge distance towards the viewer, who immediately annoys Packard. He comes across Keri and asks her directions, but when she’s about to jump on his bike to show him, Walsh turns up.“You’re mine, I’ll do anything to keep it that way” he growls at her. She won’t become his girlfriend, so the response is, “If you’re not gonna be my girl, you’re not gonna be anybody’s girl”. Packard is a borderline psychopath who rules gang with threats and intimidation, while also being extremely jealous and possessive. And he’s rather unnerved by Jake. He thinks he reminds him of somebody, and hates it that Jake, who also gets to know the brother of Keri’s murdered ex Billy, and Keri are getting friendly.

All this is handled with economy, yet scenes are still allowed to breath. We especially get a sense of poor Keri’s predicament. There’s no mystery though; we know who Jake is really early, right from when we see him being killed in a flashback and soon after see that he has knife scars on his neck and back. In any case, the action soon begins to take over as the Turbo Interceptor appears, seemingly from nowhere, plus its driver who wears a black race helmet and is covered head-to-toe in black body armur which is adorned with metal braces resembling those worn by victims recovering from severe physical injuries. Driver and car especially like to show up where Packard and his buddies are hanging around so they will race with him. First up is Oggie [whom Marvin wanted Johnny Depp to play]. He dies in a high-speed, fiery crash which oddly leaves his body untouched except for burnt out eye sockets while the car puts itself back together again and disappears before the eyes of Sheriff Loomis and his men, Randy Quaid being given the role of the archetypal person whose presence actually matters not to the story but who we can put ourselves in the place of if we’re sceptics about the supernatural. We’re told that the dramatic turning point will be when Keri stands up to Packard and totally defies him, because Jake tells her that she needs to do this. This suggests a somewhat deeper, more psychological piece where Jake could possibly be a figment of Keri’s imagination who helps her, but nah, this is The Wraith after all. There’s none of the ambiguity and moral complexity of High Plains Drifter where The Stranger isn’t always likable and nearly the whole town is guilty because they watched a killing and let it happen. It’s just simple good vs. evil as Jake enacts his revenge, sparing the life of the one ‘good’ gang member. I’d have probably had Jake kill him too, but then I don’t write movie scripts and they were going for a quite feelgood vibe here despite the horror touches.

We don’t see much in the way of human death, but do witness lots of vehicles burning and exploding. Rather than this showing a supposed lack of interest or compassion for the living beings in this film, I see this more as a way to keep the rating a ‘PG-13′ in the United States. Here in the UK it got an ’18’ which seems rather harsh, though things are still on the edge of what one would assume was typical teenage viewing, especially with two of the gang members knocking back WD40 which they’re totally addicted to, some shots of breasts [missing from some versions] and that thrice repeated red-heavy flashback which gets more detailed with each itineration; its brutality really comes across even though we see very little of the slashing and the beating. Marvin and Conrad, or Marvin and the other editor Gary Rocklen [I don’t know who worked on what] use quick cuts without things becoming incomprehensible [that’s not often the case today], as they also do on the frequent car footage where a variety of angles aids the excitement and stops things from becoming too repetitious. Some details are odd, as if Marvin left out some explanatory material. A notable example is when, each time The Wraith kills one of the gang members, a mysterious arm or leg brace is shown vanishing. Marvin explained in interviews that this was intended to mean that The Wraith was getting stronger with each act of revenge, but you don’t get this from watching the film. One thing that I think this film would do if made today is go more detail into the supernatural side of things, though if you think about it the similar The Crow wasn’t much less vague, yet we didn’t feel cheated by this.

One can’t help but wonder why they thought that snow, in a film set in summer but filmed in winter, wouldn’t be noticed in a few backgrounds. And would the gang member who says the word “wraith” actually know said word. Yet these guys are all effectively if simply sketched so they provide a bit of comic relief yet we’re also intimidated by them, while Nick Cassavetes [son of John] makes for a scarily convincing alpha male who inside is very weak indeed. As for Sheen, he’s very likable, even if he does first appear wearing just a blue demin jacket with all the buttons undone. Was that look ever cool? One character I wanted to spend more time with was Billy [Matthew Parry]; one gets the idea that his part was edited down, which means that an emotional payoff doesn’t really hit the mark like it should. And then there’s the songs. They seem too frequent and aren’t a particularly good backdrop for the action scenes especially when we also have some driving [sorry] scoring from Michael Hoenig and J. Peter Robinson which acts as a much better accompaniment. I feel that quite a few first time modern viewers will wish the film had gone more into the horror potential of the tale, especially when we get suggestions that it will do this, like Jake suddenly emerging from behind Jamie’s tombstone. This means that I wouldn’t be opposed to a remake which did such a thing. Yet it’s also possible to like the direction they went in here. Jake, much like Eric Draven, comes back as much for love as revenge. This means that not just does the rather idealised romance between Jake and Keri work very well in context, but also that the happy ending, despite it raising a lot of questions, failed to irritate the Doc at all, a person who generally loves his downbeat endings, especially when they seem such natural conclusions.

Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

 

About Dr Lenera 3150 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

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