“The Wraith” is one of those B movies from the eighties that is so inexplicable and so bizarre, but so damn satisfying. When I was a kid I spent a lot of my time watching antenna TV (Grade A TV Junkie right here!) and whatever movie was on that peaked my interest, even a little, I would be there front and center. “The Wraith” is one of the movies that caught my attention right away (showing prominently on WPIX Channel 11). It wasn’t only for the revenge tale involving an undead anti-hero, but also for the titular Wraith, who just looks so bad ass
Even in 2021, “The Wraith” is beautifully designed and rather iconic, if I may say so. Iconic might not be what many would associate with Mike Marvin’s supernatural thriller, but damn it, I love it. Nick Cassevetes plays the despicable Packard Walsh who, with his motorized gang control and terrorize an Arizona desert town where they force drivers to drag-race so they can ‘win’ their vehicles. After Walsh stabs the decent teenager Jamie Hankins to death for being intimate with a girl whom Walsh wants for himself, the mysterious Jake Kesey arrives. He’s a cool motor-biker who also garners a seemingly invincible hot rod and a lust for revenge.
Jake befriends Jamie’s girlfriend Keri Johnson, takes Jamie’s sweet brother Billy under his wing and manages what Sheriff Loomis can not – the methodical and otherworldly elimination of Packard’s criminal gang and aspiring crime ring involving car theft. To top it all off, there’s even Charlie Sheen starring alongside eighties bombshell Sherilyn Fenn, while Clint Howard and Randy Quaid feature prominently in supporting roles.
“The Wraith” seemingly comes out of left field not wasting too much time explaining away who or what the Wraith actually is. Most of “The Wraith” involves the apparent mystery of Jake Kesey and why he’s in the town in the first place. Is Jake Kesey just an avenging spirit? Is he Jamie Hankins in re-incarnated? Who or what reincarnated him? Is the Protector a separate entity? Why does he need the body armor? Is he from hell? Is he from heaven? Why exactly does he give the car away when the smoke settles? Why do the police just let the thugs steal all the nerds’ cars in such a small town?
All we really know is that he’s a spirit of vengeance draped in a Grim Reaper tinted body of armor. His scythe is the beautiful Turbo Interceptor which he uses to confront Packer and his goons, and ultimately take their lives whenever they lose in a race to him. “The Wraith” is more about the experience with the fantastic hard rock soundtrack (featuring Ozzy Osbourne, Motley Crue, and Billy Idol respectively) and Mike Marvin’s absolutely bonkers, but sleek direction. He pictures the titular boogey man as a merciless and ruthless being that strategically picks apart Packard and his criminal operation.
Along with some truly good race sequences (and still sharp special effects), Marvin allows the Wraith a big action set piece where he storms a garage run by Packard and blows everything to kingdom come with his patented shot gun. While Charlie Sheen and Sherilyn Fenn (Fenn is gorgeous as always) are very good in their respective roles, the movie mostly excels due to the slew of really fun supporting turns.
Quaid is very good as the sheriff struggling to make sense of the supernatural murder spree, while Cassevetes is an absolutely amoral bastard. Clint Howard with his high top and glasses is a pure sight to behold, as he fearlessly plays the heel, along with Jamie Bozian and David Sherrill (completing the circle) as the slimy goons doing Packer’s bidding.
Mike Marvin’s cult classic is one big delicious eighties stew that combines “Mad Max,” “Tron,” “High Plains Drifter,” and a bit of John Hughes, effortlessly. It’s often ignored whenever someone lists notable eighties films, and that needs to be fixed, as “The Wraith” is a gem.