Ghosts come in all sorts of forms…from Casper to Patrick Swayze. But not all ghosts are content to spent a film singing Herman’s Hermits tunes to Whoopi Goldberg. As evidenced by our film today, there are some spectres who seek out revenge, as many of us would, by challenging those responsible for our murder to life or death drag races in the Arizona desert. Don’t tell me you’ve never thought of doing that! Well, take joy in the fact that your fantasy was acted out on the big screen thirty years ago in 1986’s The Wraith.
Our story takes places in the small desert town of Brooks, Arizona where the night streets are controlled by a gang of gearheads. Packard Walsh (Nick Cassavetes) and his gang (including Clint Howard as Rughead) will often find unsuspecting motorists and challenge them to a drag race…for pinks, of course. One day, a new kid, Jake (Charlie Sheen), arrives in town and immediately rubs Packard the wrong way when he dares to talk to the gang leader’s best girl, Keri (Sherilyn Fenn). Jake’s only other friend ends up being Billy (Matthew Barry), who already isn’t exactly liked by Packard’s gang.
Strangely, Jake’s arrival in town coincides the the appearance of a mysterious Turbo Interceptor (that’s a car, folks) in town. Nobody knows who the helmet wearing driver of the car is, but whoever he is he keeps showing up to challenge Packard’s gang in a series of drag races. In each race, the Interceptor breaks ahead and seems to vanish. But then it’ll suddenly reappear on the road…right in the path of the other car. The result is always a huge explosion which leaves the other driver as a pale white corpse. With Packard’s gang dropping like flies, Sheriff Loomis (Randy Quaid) starts to investigate…yet nobody seems to make the connection that the new kid in town is SPOILER ALERT really the ghost of Billy’s dead brother, exacting his revenge against the gang that murdered him.
The Wraith is certainly an odd little flick. It’s what you would get if you took a few episodes of Knight Rider and threw them into a blender with Ghost and a pinch of The Warriors. Strangely, I kind of dug this strange concoction. It does have a little bit of a John Hughes vibe but set in the Arizona desert. With the exception of Randy Quaid, pretty much everyone in this little town is a teenager. Plus, they all hang out either at the local swimmin’ hole or the hamburger stand…which actually gives the film a slightly 50’s vibe, as well. As usual, some of the actors playing teenagers are actually way too old for their roles. I mean Clint Howard was pushin’ 30 when this was made! We also get the opposite end of the spectrum, though. Viewers with keen eyes may spot future model and Dancing with the Stars co-host Brooke Burke in an uncredited role as one of the waitresses at the drive-in. If my math is right she would’ve been about 14 at the time this was filmed…yet she looks about 23.
It is interesting, though, that even with a legit 80’s teen star in the film’s lead role, he actually gets very little screen time. There are portions of the film where I completely forgot that Charlie Sheen was the star. He pops up here and there for a few moments, mostly to woo Sherilyn Fenn’s character, but then he vanishes. Many times when we see his character he’s just this mysterious guy in a black racing helmet. So we can’t see his face anyhow! That’s kind of ok, though, since his character isn’t really all that interesting. Packard and his gang are the real highlight of the film. Packard has insured his place as the leader of this group be surrounding himself with a bunch of real lugheads with names like Oogie, Skank, and Gutterboy. It’s fun watching each of these geniuses line up to go head to head in a drag race with the mysterious driver, only to get themselves blown up in the process. Only Clint Howard’s character seems to have something resembling a brain in his skull and, as usual, he is a joy to watch.
One really nice surprise with this film is its soundtrack. It utilizes a number of iconic 80’s tunes including Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love,” “Rebel Yell” from Billy Idol, and Motely Crue’s cover of “Smokin’ in the Boys Room.” There are also a number of other great tracks from the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Lion, and Bonnie Tyler. The film also features a sequence set in an airplane graveyard…the same that was used in the 80’s classic Can’t Buy Me Love.
The Wraith is certainly a unique entry in the canon of 80’s teen films. It’s style and soundtrack are 80’s through and through. But it’s emphasis on the local drive-in diner and young hooligans drag racing for pinks gives it a slight feel of a 50’s teenagers-run-amok flick. Had they given Charlie Sheen a bit more of chance to do his thing the film would’ve done a bit better. As is, though, it’s a pretty fun ride.