The Wraith (1986) The Wraith (1986) -***

     You will have heard this one before, I think. A young couple are ambushed by a roving gang of ruffians, who maul the guy, rape the girl, and leave them both for dead by the roadside. In the aftermath, the guy is mysteriously resurrected as an invulnerable avatar of vengeance, and proceeds to hunt down his killers one by one. It’s The Crow, right? Sure. But it’s also The Wraith, an erstwhile cable TV staple now fallen into relative obscurity, notable for, among other things, a single day’s worth of appearances by a pre-stardom Charlie Sheen, shot immediately before he flew off to the Philippines for Platoon. The similarity between the two stories is even more startling when you realize that The Wraith predates not merely the film version of The Crow, but even the graphic novel by James O’Barr from which it derives. At the same time, though, O’Barr began developing the comic as early as 1981, which would seem to rule out The Wraith having more than a subliminal influence on its final form, even if we assume that O’Barr was familiar with the film. That fascinates me, because if you didn’t know the chronology, it would be natural to figure that this movie had been made to cash in on The Crow’s early cult popularity.

     Bizarrely, The Wraith begins with the crime that sets its plot in motion already in the past. Indeed, when we first hear of the murder of Jamie Hankins (played in flashbacks by Christopher Bradley, from The Initiation and Waxwork) and the gang-rape of his girlfriend, Keri Johnson (Sherilyn Fenn, of Boxing Helena and Zombie High), the incident is mentioned only in passing, with little indication of its centrality to the story. Instead, we start with a swarm of fast-moving will-o-wisps vandalizing various sorts of property as they race through the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona, on their way to a remote crossroads. There, the balls of light merge to form a racing-helmeted figure in futuristic garb resembling Bob Ringwood’s conception of a Fremen stillsuit, together with a similarly futuristic and sinister-looking sports car.

     Now we get a crime— although it confusingly isn’t the crime, if you catch my meaning. A fluffy-haired hotrodder by the name of George (Steven Eckholdt) is out cruising the desert by night with his girlfriend (Elizabeth Cox, from Night of the Creeps and Intruder) when the two of them are herded into a kettle trap by a gang of much grubbier and more intimidating gearheads. While the especially degenerate Skank (David Sherrill, of Mars Attacks! and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Gutterboy (Kampout’s Jamie Bozian) restrain the girl, gang leader Packard Walsh (Nick Cassavetes, from Class of 1999 II: The Substitute and The Astronaut’s Wife) forces George to accept a very high-stakes bet. Unless he’d prefer to take a mass beating and see his girlfriend gang-raped, George will pit his Daytona Turbo Z against Packard’s suped-up Corvette in a race to some landmark familiar to both parties, with the loser to surrender his car to the winner. If you didn’t already know that the producers had a product-placement deal with the Chrysler Corporation, you’d probably guess as much from the preposterous fact that Walsh has to cheat to win despite his enormous materiel advantage. George can get as sore as he likes about being skunked, but he’s outnumbered six to one, and Packard has his girl as a hostage. There’s really nothing he can do at this point but to begin the dispiriting trudge back to town on foot while Packard and his boys abscond with his wheels to their secret chopshop deeper still in the desert.

     The next day or thereabouts, a new kid arrives in Tucson. His name is Jake Kesey (Sheen, who made a few more movies in this stratum than I realized— look for him in The Arrival and The Boys Next Door as well), and he wastes no time in taking an interest in the unfortunate Keri Johnson. The trouble is, someone else has already stepped into the position in her life vacated by the late Jamie Hankins (whom, I should emphasize, we still haven’t heard of at this stage of the film), and the someone else in question is Packard Walsh. That’s rather startling, since it won’t take any slightly perceptive viewer long to piece together that Packard’s gang were the ones who raped her and slew Jamie, but it turns out that Keri has complete amnesia regarding the night of the attack. All she knows about Packard is that he’s a psychopath who won’t take “Sorry— not interested” for an answer. As that ought to imply, Walsh isn’t happy to see his girlfriend (for values of “girlfriend” less than or equal to “unrequiting crush-object who puts up with him only because she can’t figure out how to get rid of him”) chatting with some other guy. Jake thus makes his first enemy in Tucson in the very process of making his first friend.

     Soon after meeting Keri, Jake also meets Billy Hankins (Matthew Barry), Jamie’s younger brother, who works with Keri at the local burger stand. Now at last we hear about what happened to her and Jamie that night some vaguely defined time ago. And because the initial meeting between Jake and Billy occurs at a swimming hole favored by the youth of Tucson, in a spot where Packard can observe them from the parking lot, we also get our first real inkling of what anything we’ve seen so far could possibly have to do with Racer X out there at the crossroads. For one thing, with Jake shirtless like most of the other swimming and sunbathing boys, Billy can’t help noticing that his back is crisscrossed with deep scars, as if he’d been carved up or maybe even severely flogged at some point in his past. And what’s more, now that Walsh has a chance for a good look at Kesey, he realizes that the new guy bears a vague but still disquieting resemblance to Jamie Hankins. Finally, the flashbacks brought on by Packard’s flash of recognition reveal that before Jamie was locked into the trunk of his car and pushed over a cliff, he received wounds that would have left scars very much like Jake’s, had he somehow managed to survive the explosion that ensued when his car hit the ground.

     We’ll have all of that very much on our minds a scene or two down the line, when Packard’s attempt to push Billy into a forfeit race like the earlier one against George is derailed by the sudden arrival of Racer X in the parking lot of Big Kay’s Burgers. Naturally the interloper’s one-of-a-kind car is an even more tempting target than Billy’s Triumph Spitfire, and Oggie Fisher (Griffin O’Neal, from April Fools’ Day and Ghoulies Go to College), one of Packard’s less mentally defective goons, claims what he expects to be the honor of adding the strange machine to the gang’s fleet. It’s obvious within seconds, though, that Oggie is outmatched. Every time he looks like he might be about to pull ahead, Racer X effortlessly pours on a new turn of speed, until finally, a few bends short of the agreed-upon finish line, he leaves Oggie literally in the dust. Racer X isn’t done with Fisher even now, however. At the finish line itself, Oggie finds the mystery car parked broadside across both lanes. There’s no time to stop at the speed he’s going, and the result is a fiery T-bone crash that obliterates both vehicles. Then a moment later, Racer X and his car reconstitute themselves, and drive back off into the desert.

     Sheriff Loomis (Randy Quaid, of Heartbeeps and The Day the World Ended) is not happy with pretty much anybody right about now. To begin with, one gets the impression that he’s long known about Packard and the gang’s highway piracy, but has never had solid evidence against them on anything more serious than a moving violation. But as bad as it is to have a pack of recidivist automotive troublemakers running loose, it’s something else again when their illegal racing starts killing people— even if the only ones getting killed so far are the troublemakers themselves. Packard and his followers are united in claiming to have no idea who the mystery car’s driver might be, though, and for once in their useless lives, they’re speaking nothing but the truth. Nor do Billy, Keri, or any of the other witnesses to the onset of the fatal race have any answers. And although no one was on the scene to witness the impossible conclusion, the paramedics who pull Oggie’s corpse from the blazing wreckage have weird news indeed for the sheriff. Not only is the dead boy untouched by the flames, but there isn’t a mark on him anywhere apart from his eyes, which are quite simply gone from their sockets without the slightest trace of spilled blood.

     A day or two later, Racer X pays a visit to the chopshop nobody’s supposed to know about, and shoots the place up with a semiautomatic shotgun just like the one the Terminator brought to Paul Winfield’s police station two years earlier. Strangely, he doesn’t kill anyone on this occasion— doesn’t even seem to be trying to. He costs Packard a small fortune in property damage, though, including quite a bit to the gang’s lovingly enhanced cars. Racer X also grants Rughead (Clint Howard, from Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and Evilspeak), Packard’s master mechanic and living encyclopedia of Blue Book values, a brief glimpse of his real face. Not that anyone will believe Rughead when he reports what he saw, mind you; after all, dead men don’t race hotrods, and there’s just no way that Jamie Hankins could have walked, crawled, wriggled, or otherwise ambulated away from that fireball at the base of the cliff.

     Over the coming days, the individual gang members each have their expected run-ins with Racer X: first Minty (Chris Nash, of Solar Crisis), then the inseparable Skank and Gutterboy, then Rughead, and finally Packard himself. Loomis, meanwhile, comes ever closer to his wits’ end trying to catch the deadly driver, or even to uncover a clue to his identity. And on a quieter front, Keri and Billy increasingly come to feel that there’s something ineffably familiar about Jake. The tone of the latter subplot is starkly at odds with that of the other two, verging on the more saccharine moods of “The Twilight Zone.” And incredibly, once Packard loses that last race to the gates of Hell, the milder tone takes the driver’s seat for The Wraith’s final lap.

     I’m not sure I can convey just how fucked up The Wraith’s conclusion is. Even to try will require spoilers aplenty, so consider yourselves warned. When I saw what was starting to happen among Jake, Keri, and Billy, I braced myself for some sappy tear-jerking in which Kesey would admit to them his true identity before regretfully going back to whatever afterworld had temporarily released him. And until practically the very last moment, that does seem to be the direction in which we’re headed. But then Jake decides to give his brother a little parting gift— the keys to the fucking Wraithmobile! You know, the car that every cop in Pima County is looking for right about now? The one that, to all appearances thus far, doesn’t quite exist in the same sense as anything Billy might conceivably drive away from lot at Tate Dodge or whatever? How is he going to insure a thing like that? What mechanic knows how to fix it? What does it even run on? Most of all, how is he going to explain its presence when Sheriff Loomis spots it in the parking lot of Big Kay’s Burgers tomorrow? Then, when Jake goes to see Keri, it becomes clear that his goodbye to Billy had nothing to do with a pending return to the grave, but was rather predicated upon his plans to ride off into the sunrise with her on the compact motorbike he’s been using to get around in his human form! So in the big picture, The Wraith is what happens when the Crow borrows the Car from Satan in order to hunt down Toecutter, only he gets to live happily ever after with his best girl once his automotive murder spree is finished. The 80’s were a big decade for unearned happy endings all around, but HOLY SHIT!

     Of course, all The Wraith’s storytelling decisions are rather strange, so that’s one sense in which the ending isn’t totally incongruous. I’ve already mentioned writer/ director Mike Marvin’s determination to obscure the circumstances from which the entire plot proceeds for as long as possible, but it may not be obvious from my synopsis alone how that reticence continues to deform the film even after we’ve seen the flashbacks establishing what Packard’s gang did to Jamie and Keri. On a metaphysical level, with no scene analogous to Eric Draven’s dying encounter with his spirit animal, we’re left entirely to our own devices in trying to sort out what in the hell the elder Hankins boy has even become. I don’t think the question would gnaw at me the way it does if it weren’t for the magic car which nevertheless bears a conspicuous Chrysler emblem on its front fascia. I get that the real reason for the badge is that the Wraithmobile is really Dodge’s M4S Turbo Interceptor technology demonstrator, but what’s the in-story justification? Is there a dealership on the Other Side where you can trade some of your grave goods for a car that never went into production? Will the Celestial Bureaucracy let me finance a Lincoln Futura or a Pontiac Banshee by borrowing against the hell money my descendants will burn for me?

     Even if you’re willing to handwave the mechanics of resurrection, skipping the beginning of the story still causes serious problems. Since we never properly meet Jamie in his original guise, we have no clear idea who he was before his death, and therefore no baseline against which to evaluate how (or indeed whether) becoming a personification of vengeance has changed him. Also, because Marvin insists on playing coy about the connection between Jamie and Jake, our acquaintance with the latter persona would tell us little about the former, even if Charlie Sheen’s busy schedule hadn’t ruled out a more substantial role for Jake. As for the third persona, Racer X rightly has no discernable personality at all; to all outward appearances, he is nothing more or else than the revenge he exacts upon his killers. Put it all together, and the film’s ostensible protagonist simply vanishes from sight whenever we look directly at him.

     There’s no other character that can really take his place, either. Billy has even fewer scenes than Jake. Keri’s usefulness as a backup protagonist is limited first by her amnesia, and then later by her nearly awesome obliviousness. She gives no indication of suspecting until the very climax that the boyfriend she despises is marked for death, let alone that he’s marked for death by the supernatural alter ego of the boyfriend she actually wants. Nor, for that matter, does she make until nearly the last moment the connection that Packard’s doom is the direct result of his having raped her and killed her ex. And finally, Sheriff Loomis never does much of anything beyond showing up too late to intervene meaningfully in Racer X’s latest highway assassination. Perversely, then, the closest thing to a main character that we have left is Packard Walsh! That seems not to have been anyone’s conscious intention, however, because Packard is never the viewpoint character in any of his scenes. He doesn’t even get a moment of humanizing terror like the climax to Savage Streets or Rambo’s turning of the tables on the manhunt in First Blood. How are we supposed to invest ourselves in a story that isn’t about anyone?



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