Movie Review: The Wraith (1986)

At one point in your life, were you a child who thought you could solve all your conflicts & everyone would like you if you had a cool car? And people who were jerks to you would regret it, fear you, and now respect you, because now you had that bad ass car? Absolutely.

What movie did you watch? Based on the previous question, we’re guessing “Christine?” Or a “Fast & Furious”Prequel where Vin Diesel is in Driver’s Ed? THE WRAITH starring the Dodge Interceptor, Randy Quaid, and occasionally Charlie Sheen. Also, Clint Howard is a teenager or 20-something.

Massive spoiler warning. I am going to give you the specific moments of the end and what happens to whom, because pre-teen me and my imaginary BFF car have SO MANY QUESTIONS.

Of course, the move was made in the 80’s, and, like most 80’s kinda-horror kinda-adventure movies, the plot holes are huge but they don’t matter because the filmmakers delivered what was on the poster. If you want a cute guy rescuing a cute girl from her domineering jerk of a boyfriend, and the hero drives a totally awesome car that takes 2nd or top billing, then who cares about things like “wait, everyone knows that some guy was murdered? But that his body was never recovered?” Or “These guys are clearly car thieves and public menaces. They have committed several felonies that can be proven with some investigation. How are they not arrested?”

To the movie’s credit, because it doesn’t cater to my needs to answer all the “Wait, what?”s, it moves along pretty quickly. And that’s even with what seems like a bazillion car chase scenes and local-kids-meeting-up-at-their-small-town-hangout all set to terrible 80’s hair metal. And because I have so many “Wait, what?”s, it’s laughably bad, and therefore visually tolerable, unlike bloated expensive messes such as any of the Fantastic Four movies.

Here’s some moments that form the plot: Nick Cassavetes (son of John) and his team of misfits run innocent drivers off the road and force them to drag race, and if they lose he keeps their car. He does this in the opening scene by having his goons hold a driver’s girlfriend hostage, and then wins by nearly running that driver off the road during the race. Then Charlie Sheen rolls into town on a dirt bike. It’s a scene where you see him on the horizon, no cuts, just Sheen driving the bike toward the camera for over a minute. He pulls up to this house where a girl, Keri, just happens to walk out, and introduces himself as Jake, new in town. As he is about to give her a ride, Nick Cassavetes pulls up, Keri is apparently his girlfriend but she herself is not convinced of this.

Jake goes to a swimmin’ hole which is a popular hangout for people who I can’t determine are supposed to be teenagers or just young adults hanging out at the Arizona equivalent of the beach. A guy named Billy shows up and introduces himself to Jake, and provides an infodump. Billy had a brother, Jamie, who was murdered, and Keri was Jamie’s girlfriend, and Nick Cassavetes murdered Jamie.

Billy is the fry cook at a drive in diner and Keri works there as a waitress. Everyone hangs out there, including Nick & his crew. A mysterious car shows up, and Nick & gang chase after it. One of the goons races it but loses sight of it until he crashes into it, his car bursting into flames.

Sheriff Randy Quaid shows up and demands to know who the mystery drag racer is. The goon’s gang, showing very little concern that their friend was killed in an such a sensationalist manner. The gang heads back to their chop shop, and the mystery car pulls up. (It’s day when the car pulls up, night when the driver, dressed in leather, opens the door). The mystery driver pulls out a gun and starts shooting at the goons’ cars, before vanishing.

Later, Nick is giving Keri a hard time with his goons in tow and then the mystery car shows up again, so one of the goons offers to race it. Guess what? Car race on winding road, mystery car gets away before making itself a roadblock for the oncoming goon, the goon kerploads. Like, the exact same thing happens.

Still later, Jake gives Keri a ride on his motorbike. Two of the goons see them and chase their obvious stunt doubles through an alley full of empty boxes, before accidentally misfiring a shotgun in the goons’ roadster, losing control & flipping it.

Nick sees Jake drop Keri off and picks up the fallen carless goons, plotting to get even, but mystery car quietly DROPS FROM THE SKY behind Nick’s car, pushing it into a graveyard, smashing a tombstone with Nick’s character’s name on it! (Which is symbolic, but never explained.) Nick shakes his fist in the sky or something.

LATER LATER LATER, Nick says goodbye to his gang and takes off for no stated reason, and Clint Howard tells the two remaining goons that he’s also leaving, for GOOD. He’s no further than the driveway of the chopshop before almost colliding with mystery car, which zooms past him and into the chopshop, KERPLODING the building and killing the two goons!

The sheriff shows up and Clint Howard tells him that the mystery driver is has to be some sort of supernatural incarnation of Jamie who was murdered by Nick, seeking revenge! He’s allowed to leave, to go home, and not put in the police station for being some sort of accomplice to a crime, but whatever. He’s the last of the goons and out of the movie.

Nick shows up to the diner and kidnaps Keri. His plan is to drive to California and that’s it. Well, mystery car shows up, so what does Nick do but let Keri out of the car, and offer to drag race.

Guess what happens? The only difference is that the police join the chase and some trucks carrying cars are tipped over, but Nick meets the same explosive end at the hands of mystery car. Sheriff Randy Quaid sorta throws up his hands like “whatever,” he assumes that that’s the last victim at the hands of mystery car.

SO, anyway, that night, Jake shows up to the diner and gives Billy his car. “Who are you, BRO?” Billy asks as Jake rides off on his dirtbike, before realizing…JAKE IS JAMIE! Jake pulls up to Keri’s, and they ride off into the night.

I guess that makes sense? As an ending? I saw this movie probably just before I became a teenager, and probably a few years after it came out. I have seen some stupid movies. I have laughed at Critters & saw Critters 2 in the theater. Knight Rider was the greatest drama of my childhood years. I’m not saying I was years ahead of my time or had refined tastes that would allow me to know better. But I had these particular questions back then:

-why are the bad guys drinking auto fluids? (I never knew that was a thing.)

-How does no one recognize Jake? He seems so familiar to everyone: Jamie’s BROTHER, Jamie’s GIRLFRIEND, the people who killed Jamie.

-If Keri has an inkling that Nick killed Jamie, why does she hang out with him? (It’s mentioned she was beaten and doesn’t remember dating Jamie after she woke up in the hospital, but that’s amnesia, not bad judgement. And even then someone in law enforcement investigating Jamie’s murder would be like “Hey, I know you have amnesia, but we’re looking for your boyfriend Jamie, and that guy Nick who wants to go out with you? We think he did it. Stay away from him.” Her coworker Billy didn’t get amnesia and remembers Keri dating his brother, he’d be reminding her of it every day at work.)

-Why do the goons keep drag racing mystery car after the first one was killed?

-Nick’s gang? Really stupid. The one smart guy is a nervous wreck. How do they outsmart the police all the time?

-Why don’t the cops interview Jake? They seem to know the gang. They know there’s a connection to gang & Jamie’s disappearance. Now this new guy shows up, starts hanging out with Jamie’s brother, people start dying…maybe he knows something?

-Everyone knows what the mystery car looks like now, including the police. And now Billy has the car. So, won’t Billy get pulled over for having the car that killed five people? What is he going to say to the police? These are not closed cases. Even though Randy Quaid is like “can’t stop what won’t be stopped” and then assumes that that’s the end to carnage after Nick is killed…wait, there’s the car we chased! Being driven by Billy! OPEN FIRE!

-Where did Jamie go if he was killed? How did he come back from the dead? Does he still have supernatural powers now that he gave Billy the car? And WHERE DID HE GET THE CAR?

Now that I’m older, I recognize the above question is basically Acts 1 & 2 of a 3 act movie that were never filmed or thought out. If I die at the hands of some street toughs, will The Lord hand me the keys to my revenge car? If everyone assumes that Jamie was killed, but they never found the body, why do they assume he was killed? No one ever says “Jamie disappeared.”

If Jamie WASN’T killed, somehow escaped his attackers, and recovered somewhere to look slightly different (albeit covered in huge scars)…then where did he get the car?

Why is everyone in town afraid of Nick? When they’re confronted by him in public, in full view of people who can call the police or easily overpower him, he pulls out a switchblade. He even HAS a gun, but never waves it at anyone during the course of the movie. In the middle of Arizona, I’m sure there’s one would-be victim he runs off the road to race who pulls out a gun and shoots the switchblade-wielding Nick.

One of the bigger plot issues was Charlie Sheen himself. HE’S BARELY IN IT. Nick would be the main character, trying to figure out who is the mystery guy is himself as his small-town auto larceny scheme falls apart around him. Charlie Sheen meets Keri, he bumps into his brother at the lake, and then that’s pretty much it for a few more reels before showing up to romantically pursue Keri and then he’s physically pursued by the goons. And then at the end, he drops off the car and then rides off with Keri.

And THERE’S NO DANGER to Sheen, which is why I say this whole movie is a 3rd act. Even when Keri is kidnapped, and held at knifepoint by Nick, there’s no standoff. Keri is not held somewhere to, say, force the invincible mystery driver to face Nick off as a human and mortal Jake/Jamie. THAT’S a final battle, giving human Jake a chance to beat Nick with the possibility of Keri having to lose him again.

But no, Nick lets Keri go and, like his dummy goons before him, hops back into his car, to certain death. Other than Nick seeing the mystery rider and mystery car alternatingly standing on the road as he races to crash into one or the other, the result is the same. Was that to show that Nick was meeting Jamie head on for Jamie’s revenge? Wouldn’t this already dumb ending work slightly better if it were Jamie and not the mystery driver waiting for him on the road to help him explode?

What’s odd is how much screen time two of the drugged out goons get. Did the editor or director find these two to have the best onscreen chemistry? They weren’t exactly funny, but they didn’t drag they movie down any more than anyone else did. But no, scenes of them driving, scenes of them walking and talking. Then they’re dispatched by a camera zooming at them before their building explodes. What kept Sheen off the set to have long walks & talks with Keri or Billy?

One of the goons is (nick)named Skank. Sheriff Quaid makes a point to say the name in the derogatory way it was meant to have, and there’s a hurt look Skank’s face. Writers, stop with the mean nicknames. Who gave him that name, why does it stick, why does he willingly call himself that?

So was it good? Oh wait, you said it wasn’t. It’s a movie whose scenes I remember vividly, not because they were good scenes, but because I had so many questions at the time. People who want to fill up giant leaps of logic can watch a movie like this to inspire them to have those kinds of questions answered, or never asked in the first place. But, the purpose of this movie was to have bitchin’ car kill off people in explosive ways, and a sex scene, and it achieved that, so enjoy it on late night cable where it belongs. It is very easy for anyone to make fun of, I’m sure.

Anything about the cast? Sherilyn Finn was on Twin Peaks and also dated Prince just before this movie came out? Clint Howard is Ron Howard’s brother. Also, one of the film crew was killed in an production related accident.




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