In 1986, Mike Marvin, best known for helming skiing documentaries in the 1970’s and writing sex-comedy ski-movie Hot Dog… The Movie released in 1984, would deliver low-budget indie effort The Wraith into cinemas. The Wraith would prove a departure for the filmmaker in that it was a high-concept, science-fiction B movie about a murdered teen who returns from the dead to exact a very specific type of revenge on the gang of murderous street-racers responsible for his demise.
The film commences with the mysterious convergence of four glowing orbs at a crossroads in the Arizona desert. Following a flash of light, a futuristic supercar is revealed, the Dodge M4S Turbo Interceptor, driven by a figure dressed in black armour wearing a racing helmet with a tinted visor.
The film then switches to an outlaw crew of juvenile delinquents in souped-up muscle cars who are getting their kicks coercing motorists on the highways of Arizona into running street races against their will for pink slips.
The gang, ruled by Nick Cassavetes’ leather jacketed ringleader Packard, are an odd assortment of uncoordinated pop-punk scoundrels. When not out racing, they terrorise the local youth population of fictional desert town Brooks, a seemingly parent-free locality policed by ineffectual law enforcement officers, led by scenery masticating sheriff Loomis, played by Randy Quaid.
Enter open-shirted Charlie Sheen as dirt bike riding mystery man Jake Kesey. Jake immediately sets about hitting on local pin-up gal Keri (Sherilyn Fenn), who is being stalked and harassed by morbidly jealous psychopath Packard. Jake forms a tenuous friendship with nice guy Billy (Matthew Barry) who works at the local diner. Billy’s brother Jamie once dated Keri. However, Jamie was recently murdered by Packard’s gang in an incident recounted during a jarringly violent flashback sequence at odds with the film’s predominantly bubble-gum teenaged aesthetic.
Jake’s arrival in the town heralds the manifestation of The Wraith, a black clad race-car driver with a grudge who sets about challenging Packard et al to a series of perilous street races. As you’d expect, Packard’s gang numbers start to dwindle as The Wraith’s avenging raison d’etre and true identity becomes increasingly apparent.
Mike Marvin’s low-budget genre hybrid, released in 1986, is a messy sci-fi confection that struggles to cohere. The film plays like a demented 1950’s juvenile delinquent movie superimposed over the top of a 1980’s bratpack melodrama. It also contains elements of supernatural western High Plains Drifter, George Miller’s Carmageddon dystopia Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior and seminal stranger in a strange town western Shane, making it exceedingly difficult to categorise.
Hobbled by some truly wooden dialogue, occasionally choppy editing, a clutch of woeful performances and the tragic on-set death of camera operator Bruce Ingram during a chase sequence gone wrong, it’s a wonder The Wraith ever saw the light of day. However, a series of excellent high-speed race and chase sequences, complemented by a judiciously sparing use of competently realised special effects, help make up for some of the film’s flaws. As a bonus, Michael Hoenig and J. Peter Robinson’s moody synth score, and a period savvy soundtrack featuring rock and power ballad luminaries Billy Idol, Bonnie Tyler and Motley Crue amongst others, ensure the film is aurally enjoyable even as the narrative falls to pieces.
Released in November 1986 in the US to limited fanfare at the box office, the film was savaged by critics who dismissed it as a noisy, disposable genre anomaly destined for ignominy. However, in the years since it was released, the film has amassed a sizeable and devoted cult following.
It is this following, along with VHS era enthusiasts looking to boost their boutique cult classics collections who will benefit most from the Vestron Video Collector’s Series Blu-Ray. The disc comes loaded with extras for fans to sink their teeth into including an audio commentary and interview with writer/director Mike Marvin, and a series of revealing interviews with cast and crew members, including genre stalwart Clint Howard, who plays Packard gang-member Rughead in the film, whose crazy haircut is often cited as an homage to David Lynch’s Eraserhead.
The Wraith (Lionsgate Vestron Video Collector’s Series Blu-Ray) is now available.