Mike Marvin’s neon nightmare is an 80s fever dream with a soundtrack to die for
High-concept sci-fi, supernatural fantasy, violent vigilante flick, maudlin teen drama, MTV-styled chase movie? Despite its hugely derivative nature, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly which genre 80s classic The Wraith belongs to, and in some instances exactly what’s happening, but that’s what makes it so special. IMDB labels the film ‘Action, Horror, Romance’, which in itself is an odd definition (of all the genres I eagerly noted during this wildly dissonant movie, horror wasn’t one that exactly sprung to mind save for one particularly brutal but heavily staged flashback). Great art allows for an audience to fill in the blanks, to ponder the possibilities and become active beyond the boundaries of a production’s running time. The Wraith isn’t great art, but you’ll be mulling the finer details, or lack thereof, long after the credits roll. Put succinctly, it’s a movie that I’m not going to forget in a hurry, though explaining it is another prospect entirely.
If someone was to ask me to sum up The Wraith in a convenient sound bite, I’d probably say something along the lines of ‘Mad Max for teenagers’, but such a description just doesn’t do it justice. I could just as easily compare it to Rebel Without a Cause, Grease, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Starman, Savage Streets, and even bullied-teen-overcomes-the-odds movies like The Karate Kid. Both High Plains Drifter and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior have been cited as major influences by director Mike Marvin for obvious reasons, but there’s so much more going on here. In fact, it’s hard to recall another film with so many transparent influences that somehow manages to work in the kitsch, ‘bad movie’ mode. It’s a crazy, irresistible matrimony of genres, utterly grounded in convention but toying with so many random tropes it becomes queerly unique. Those with a penchant for the garishly absurd are in for a delectable banquet. Just be careful not to choke on the bones.
One thing’s for sure, The Wraith is oh so deliciously 80s, and I don’t say that lightly. From the moment the film’s text whooshes towards the screen like a neon comet emerging from the celestial void, you know this film is going to be gloriously of its era. We’re clearly dealing with a meagre budget here — this is an independently produced film after all — but it does what it needs to well, and thanks to some evocative pop video lighting, MTV-styled framing and editing, it’s so much more than it has the right to be. There’s also film’s nostalgia-loaded soundtrack to consider. How this movie has evaded me for so long I’ll never know, especially after all those years as a young rental hound scouring every cobwebbed cranny. If I’d known about The Wraith, it would surely have made VHS Revival’s Best of 80s Movie Soundtracks. The music is so relentless and indicative of the era that the whole experience feels like an MTV greatest hits hour. Ozzy Osbourne, action movie regular Stan Bush, Mötley Crüe, Robert Palmer, Bonnie Tyler and Billy Idol all feature in a fully-loaded assault, and that’s just scratching the surface.
Whether this is the rose-tinted ravings of an 80s kid is a question that perhaps needs pondering. Having seen The Wraith for the first time as an adult there’s no direct nostalgic connection, but there may as well be. The whole experience shook me like a Van Halen solo blasting through Marty McFly’s ludicrously colossal amplifier. This is teen wish-fulfilment, sci-fi fantasy, gimmick-laden schlock and exploitation action thriller all rolled into a killer car movie with more than a hint of the Knightrider about it. Forget the anonymous beast from Steven Spielberg’s Duel, Christine‘s nefarious Plymouth Fury and Maximum Overdrive‘s myriad of menacing machines, The Wraith‘s super-charged 1982 Dodge PPG M4S Turbo Interceptor is the real killer; a sleek, fuel-injected panther with the ability to vanish at will, one so indestructible anything it hits explodes upon impact.
Murphy: This kid smashed down a canyon through fire and bustin’ glass.
Sheriff Loomis: Must’ve been a thousand degrees in that car.
Murphy: Uh-huh. At least.
Sheriff Loomis: Where’s his eyes?
Murphy: Sent cats climbin’ up my spine when I saw ’em haulin’ this corpse outta that canyon – clean as if he’d come out of a hot tub. I’m worried, Loomis. Som’pin’ ain’t right.
The car’s special qualities are not confined to the realms of make-believe, either. A joint venture between the Dodge Division of Chrysler Motors and PPG Industries that ate up more than a third of the movie’s $2,700,000 budget, The Wraith‘s custom-made MS4 was a technological wonder powered by a Chrysler 2.2 litre, four-cylinder, one-of-a-kind engine that could reach speeds in excess of 194 mph. This is some truly cool engineering we’re dealing with, the kind not even Mad Max can compete with.
The MS4 isn’t the only bit of kit on show either. The film’s notorious gang, dubbed the Road Pirates, sport a veritable showroom of American classics. Their modus, asides from the occasional dose of casual rape and murder, is to challenge people to races, cheating to win and claiming their vehicles as trophies. Gang leader Packard cruises around in a gorgeous, late-70s Chevrolet Corvette with a custom paint job and nose clip, his pack of Day-Glo goons trailing in a 1986 Dodge Daytona Turbo Z, a 1977 Pontiac Firebird with supercharger, a 1966 Plymouth Barracuda and a late-70s Chevrolet pickup. This movie is a gear head’s dream.
The Wraith may not match up to George Miller’s innovative Mad Max films in terms of stunt work, but Marvin, who designed the base jump for the opening scene of The Spy Who Loved Me, has done his homework, and the chase scenes are pretty damn thrilling all things considered. Sadly, this would come at a cost. During filming, a high-speed accident involving The Wraith, a pursuing vehicle and an overloaded camera car sent crew members careening into a mountainside and over a cliff edge outside of Tucson, AZ, resulting in multiple injuries and the death of assistant cameraman, Bruce Ingram, who the film was ultimately dedicated to.
Marvin would say of an incident that quickly cast a shadow over the entire production, “[The stunts] were very difficult because originally I had something like three weeks to shoot them, and on the second day of shooting we crashed a car on the mountain and one of our guys was killed and the other guy was left a paraplegic. Everybody else was really hurt desperately, and suddenly we went from having two and a half to three weeks to get all that stuff done to saying, ‘Hey, let’s just get this movie over with.’ So I shot all of those car sequences in about eight days.”
Though the tragedy doesn’t seem to have much of an impact on the actual stunt work, the movie does seem thrown together when it comes to basic logicality. The Wraith, originally pitched as Turbo Wraith Interceptor as a direct homage to The Road Warrior, is a deeply confusing movie, so confusing it has garnered an insane cult following in the near 35 years since its release. The film begins with four spheres of light coming together to form the aforementioned Dodge M4S, a mysterious helmeted figure manning the wheel. Nearby, the notorious Road Pirates, a quasi-dystopian gang who would struggle to scare a five-year-old, coerce a dating couple into a dangerous high-speed chase and take possession of the guy’s vehicle. The Road Pirates are an eclectic rabble, a mixture of Cobra Kai jocks and drug-addled runts who each possess a stereotypical embellishment to set them apart.
But don’t expect the kind of elaborate costumes that made The Road Warrior such a wonderfully theatrical experience. Bad to the bone leader Packard Walsh (Nick Cassavetes) of course wears a leather jacket and some Jim Morrison beads; David Sherill’s Skank has a makeshift mohican; Griffin O’Neal’s Oggie wears a bandanna; Jamie Bozian’s Gutterboy simply has a bit of mud rubbed onto his face, and I think they ran out of affordable ideas for Chris Nash’s Minty. The most memorable of the lot is cult legend Clint Howard’s Rughead, a blatant but wholly effective rip-off of theatrical Humongous advocate The Toadie from The Road Warrior, the sycophant who has his fingers chopped off by The Feral Kid’s razor-sharp boomerang.
Cassavetes’ Packard, more than anyone, is something of a tonal contradiction. One minutes he’s taking part in bloodthirsty rituals, the next he’s weeping like a little girl after catching the object of his desire with another man. This is a murderer and implied rapist who is capable of moments of absurd serenity and restraint. Sometimes he’s beyond reprehensible, sometimes I feel a little bit sorry for him – the characterisation is all over the place. Also, are we dealing with high school kids here? Charlie Sheen’s Rebel Without a Cause protagonist is often referred to as a kid by The Road Pirates, but there’s never any reference to high school. Love interest Keri Johnson (Sherilyn Fenn) lives in a white picket fence suburbia, but we never see her parents, or anyone’s for that matter. Outside of the burger joint where she works with her deceased boyfriend’s lovable, smart-mouthed brother, Billy, there are no real locations to speak of, or any adults save for a rabble of slow-witted (or at the very least severely underdeveloped) local cops, led by Kingpin’s Randy Quaid, who pursue The Wraith like a gang of butt-scratching hillbillies. The scope of the film’s environment is so limited it sometimes feels like we’ve wandered onto the set of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
The Road Pirates are quickly knocked off their perch when The Wraith races into town, an event that happens to coincide with the arrival of a mostly shirtless loner named Jake Kesey (Charlie Sheen). Kesey takes an immediate liking to the sumptuous Fenn (the real-life niece of rock-star Suzi Quatro), who was actually dating Johnny Depp during filming, the actor almost cast in Sheen’s place. Her character’s boyfriend, Jamie Hankins, was mysteriously murdered without a trace, an ordeal Keri has absolutely no recollection of (which makes you wonder how people can be sure he was murdered in the first place). Enter stranger in a strange land Jake, who immediately befriends Billy, a relentless expositional device who doesn’t seem at all affected by his brother’s recent murder. In fact, he’s the jolliest kid in the entire film by some distance. Some people are just better at dealing with grief, I guess.
Riding into town on his dirt bike like a high school Maverick from Top Gun, Sheen is incredibly wooden as the film’s fearless protagonist, thanks in large part to an excruciatingly melodramatic screenplay that is often at odds with The Wraith‘s exceedingly violent tone. At times his performance seems like an early audition for the role of Topper Harley from Hot Shots, a character who would not look out of place in this movie. This is the same actor who would headline two Academy Award winning Oliver Stone movies: the multi Oscar-winning Vietnam epic Platoon and the equally impressive crime drama Wall Street, starring alongside father Martin as a naive stockbroker played for a fool by Michael Douglas’ cutthroat corporate raider Gordon Gekko. To go from The Wraith to such critically acclaimed movies in the space of a few months is just mind-blowing. It’s amazing what nepotism can do for a fledgling Hollywood career.
It’s during The Wraith‘s final act that everything goes completely batshit. I mean, it absolutely loses the plot in a narrative sense, all of it building to a head-scratching revelation that will smack you mercilessly in the mouth and mock your sense of befuddlement. It happens so suddenly and is executed with such abandon it barely registers at first. Apparently, Sheen’s Kesey is actually the reincarnation of Keri’s dead beau. At least, I think he is. Whenever The Wraith disposes of a victim, their eyeballs vanish without explanation, pieces of what appear to be leg braces disappearing from our mysterious stranger’s torso. In the end, Jake (or James) very briefly (and cruelly) explains the situation to his brother before riding off into the night’s sky with his once-estranged love, but it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Is he an alien? A ghost? Where are the two of them going? Where are the girl’s parents? There are so many questions left unanswered.
What is the explanation for all of this? It’s a subject that has been discussed ad nauseam by fans of the movie. Fortunately, director Marvin was able to shed some light on affairs in a rare interview with Dread Central. “As the Wraith settles the score with the members of Packard’s gang and knocks them off one by one, he begins to get stronger and stronger,” Marvin would explain. “Then one more piece of what is supposed to be holding him together artificially begins to disappear. His crutches are then starting to vanish as he gets his satisfaction… Right, there were two reasons behind [the missing eyes of The Wraith’s victims]. Firstly, it was kind of like St. Elmo’s fire or the strange way that lightning strikes and burns everything around it, sometimes the most obvious thing remains intact. In this case it was completely the reverse. The cars would go down a fiery inferno and everything inside would melt, but the bodies would be untouched. I don’t know if you’ve heard anything about when bodies spontaneously combust and they burn up but everything around them is fine. Again, in The Wraith it’s the reverse. Everything around these guys burns, but the only thing on the bodies that burns out is their eyeballs. Now that being said, the second part of this idea is that the last thing the bad guys see before they die – if you notice the way I structured the collisions – is a bright flash. There is always a flash frame in there, and that’s what happens – car gone, eyes gone, body intact.
Keri Johnson: [after The Wraith has transformed into Jake] Jake!
Jake: [smiles] You know who I am.
Keri Johnson: [pause, then she realizes the truth] Jamie!
[She runs into his arms and they embrace]
Jake: This is as close as I could come to who I once was.
Keri Johnson: It’s close enough.
On the subject of who or what The Wraith actually is, the director would add, “I always envisioned him as emerging out of a sort of secondary dimension or reality, but I never saw him coming back from the dead as a ghost. I always thought he was a dimensional crosser, so when he was killed in the first place, instead of him going into the abyss or into the darkness or the void, whatever you want to call it, he goes to a place where he is able to literally cross dimensions. Originally, my idea with the Wraith car was instead of using a steering wheel, he would reach into the dashboard itself and then we would cut to inside where the engine was and we would now be in outer space. His hands would be sort of through the firmament and he would control the car almost by some kind of electrical connection.”
Well, that clears things up.
To be fair, the movie’s general logicality was affected by outside interference. After days of arduous wrangling, Marvin was only able to salvage around ninety percent of what he wanted, which apparently altered the structure of the film entirely. Randy Quaid’s subplot was completely nixed, which goes some way to explaining not only the plot’s illogicality, but that particular character’s lack of assertiveness. Typically, it was all a case of budgetary constraints. The studio refused to shoot the remainder of the script, with much of it left on the editing floor.
Such executive meddling would usually prove damning to a film of such low-key aspirations, but with The Wraith I feel the opposite is true. Would people still be talking about this film more than three decades on were it not for such meddling? I very much doubt it.
Critics were none-the-wiser, the scorn typically full-on. Michael Wilmington of the Los Angeles Times was particularly scathing. Leading with the derisory headline, ‘A Turbocharged Cartoon for Idiots’, he would write, ‘”The Wraith” is a real stinker of a movie, lacking even a spark plug of originality. In it, previously good actors deliver ridiculous performances: Like Charlie Sheen, who has to stand around looking mythic, and Randy Quaid, who seems to have phoned in his performance from the Broderick Crawford grunt-and-glower school for surly TV cops.’ Leonard Maltin was equally dismissive, describing The Wraith as being, “for those who favour fast cars and lots of noise.”
I disagree with some of what critics wrote, especially regarding Peter Kuran and Alan Munro’s special effects, and while it’s hard to refute much of what was written regarding the film’s dodgy acting and general illogicality, it’s those criticisms that make The Wraith such a unique and entertaining experience that continues to grow in lore. The fact is, some viewers like fast cars and lots of noise, and in those terms Marvin’s dissonant, B-movie splurge excels like a nitrous-oxide road warrior racing through a never-ending wasteland. To where, lord only knows!