Monday, March 25, 2013

Reeling Backward: "The Wraith" (1986)

"The Wraith" is what happens when a cool idea for a movie gets run over by the '80s.

Or should I say, this 1986 sci-fi/adventure is what happens when filmmakers borrow a whole bunch of ideas from other, better movies and toss them together without much rhyme or reason. This weird, awful, but strangely compelling flick seems like it checked the "all of the above" box in trying to appeal to different demographics.

On the one hand, it's a racing picture about a bunch of hooligans who seem to have taken over the roads, with inept law enforcement holding a tenuous grip on the thin white line between life and death. Then a solitary figure appears driving a super-advanced car out to dispense a little vigilante justice. It's not too hard to see the liberal borrowing from the "Mad Max" movies.

The "Wraith" car itself bears a great resemblance to other futuristic vehicles throughout cinematic history, especially the "Knight Rider" TV show that was popular during that era. This car doesn't talk, but it does seem to exist as an entity of its own that joins its life force to the mission of its driver.

Then there's the drippy romance portion, in which Charlie Sheen and Sherilyn Fenn make gooey eyes at each other, falling almost instantly in love and having sex (not necessarily in that order). Although in actuality, he's secretly her murdered lover, brought back from the dead in an even dreamier form. At times, their pairing has an almost John Hughes feel to it, teenage hormones mixed with fatalistic we-were-meant-to-be-together claptrap.

Occasionally, the Wraith appears outside of his car, and when he does so he wears a black suit of armor that resembles a cross between "Predator" (although that film did not come out until a year later), the boogums from "Alien" and Mad Max's leather outfit.

For some reason, the Wraith has twisty metal rods festooning his suit, and every time he takes revenge on one of the members of the road gang who killed him, they vaporize and disappear. My guess is they're supposed to be braces since the murdered guy was cut up by his enemies and Jake, the reincarnation of him played by Sheen, bears matching scars along his back and throat.

Since his former self didn't sustain any crippling injuries along his arms and legs, it's a puzzle as to why his new body requires support for his limbs. Furthermore, why the heck would they disappear each time he kills one of his killers, as if some sort of prophecy is being fulfilled?

Stylistically, "The Wraith" has some notable qualities, but metaphysically it's roadkill.

Writer/director Mike Marvin populates his film with a bunch of one-note weirdos and stock characters. Sheen seems almost indifferent to his time onscreen -- which, for the top-billed actor, he has surprisingly little of. He plays the classic new guy in town who stands up to the local tough, offering words of encouragement to the local pushed-around shrimp and smoldering gazes for Keri (Fenn), the hot squeeze next door.

Nick Cassavetes has a couple of neat scenes as Packard, the head of the road gang. He has a fixation on Keri, keeping her close by his side despite her constant protestations that she doesn't love him. At one point he coolly slices his hand open in front of her to demonstrate his conviction: "When you can't feel anything, you can do anything."

The gang's M.O. is simple: Find the owner of a hot car, force him to compete in a race for the title to his ride, and then sell it off to fund their own gearhead dreams. Of course, in the classic motif of films of this ilk, the worst piece of weaponry Packard can summon is a switchblade. Despite being set in Arizona, long a land of fierce gun advocates, none of the locals are packing any heat.

The car itself is kind of a write-off. It was based on a concept car, the Dodge M4S, that actually became a pace car for the Indianapolis 500 in the early 1980s. The filmmakers slapped some customized exterior pieces on it, the most noticeable effect being to make the rear end look like it's six feet longer than it should be. Jake, when he turns over the keys to the shrimp at the end of the movie, refers to it as a "Turbo Interceptor," though no one has ever called it this before.

Marvin's race scenes are shot with a keen eye, and the stunts and car crashes are generally pretty cool for a low-budget film. There's some jump-cutting and other effects that were fairly innovative for the time. The Wraith car/driver only seems to have one trick -- racing ahead of his opponent, then stopping in the road to force him to crash into him. After the fireball has subsided, the car reappears magically.

I did greatly enjoy Clint Howard as Rughead, the resident scientific genius of Packard's gang. He designs all sorts of advancements for their cars, though the Wraith shows up with a shotgun and blows them all to pieces before they ever get on the road. There's one terrific scene were Rughead demands the Wraith open his hood so he can attach some sort of jamming doohickey that's supposed to disable the car if a racer runs away -- again, it's something talked about but which never actually comes into play.

Rughead is surprised when the rear compartment of the car opens up instead of the front, and when he peers inside the strange engine actually pulses in a rhythmic, sexual way. The reaction shot of Howard, adorned with an Eraserhead hairdo and his face lit up orange by the glow of the unearthly technology, is a keeper.

For some reason, the Wraith does not identify Rughead as one of his targets, driving right past him at one point to plow into the garage where two other gang members are toiling. Sheriff Loomis, the local lawman played by Randy Quaid who talks a lot but makes few arrests, even declares all of the members of Packard's gang dead, despite the fact Rughead is still kicking.

"The Wraith" is not any kind of quality filmmaking, but I'm still glad I saw it. I was expecting something darker and scarier, and instead it's a big glop of Hollywood cheese, sliced from half a dozen other movies. Still, as a piece of '80s zeitgeist it offers something of a glimpse into the national psyche of the time -- not to mention the feather hairdos and jean jackets.

1.5 stars out of four

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