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Monday, 26 November 2012

 
Cody Hamman knocks back some grapefruit juice and shows Film Appreciation for The Wraith (1986).


Supernatural balls of light streak down from the heavens like shooting stars and speed around the Arizona desert, racing along the empty roads, blasting through billboards, turning metal traffic signs red hot. Coming in from the four directions of a crossroads just outside the small town of Brooks, the lights collide at the middle of the intersection and form into a black, futuristic/otherworldy Turbo Interceptor. At the wheel is a man fully suited up in black body armor, boots, gloves, and a visored helmet, his limbs encased in metal braces. This is The Wraith.


The next day, another stranger rides into Brooks on a dirt bike, this one a mysterious young man named Jake, whose body is covered with scars. Almost immediately upon his arrival, Jake meets the beautiful Keri Johnson and there's a clear and instant mutual attraction between them. The only other acquaintance Jake makes during his time in town is Billy, the cook from the local drive-in burger joint, where Keri works as a rollerskating waitress. Coincidentally (or not), both of the people Jake befriends share a tragic loss - a year ago, Keri's boyfriend Jamie, Billy's brother, was murdered by the gang of criminal youths who wreak havoc on the streets of Brooks and the surrounding desert.

The gang works as road pirates, forcing people with nice cars into drag races for ownership of the vehicle, threatening physical violence if the driver doesn't comply, keeping passengers hostage as insurance or planting a "digital radio killer" in their car that will zap its electrical system if they try to drive off after losing. The gang is six men strong, each member with their own distinct style - there's the letterman jacket wearing Minty, Oggie in cut-off shirts and a leopard 'do rag, the filthy and flannel clad Gutterboy, the mohawked and face painted Skank, big-haired brainiac Rughead, and the leather jacketed, puka shell necklace wearing leader of the pack, Packard Walsh. Packard is described as "a mistake of nature, a genetic misfire". He's obsessed with Keri and gets crazy jealous whenever he sees her around other guys. He sees her as his property, and warns her, "If you're not gonna be my girl, you're not gonna be anybody's."

Packard's insane obsession is what led to Jamie's murder. In flashbacks drenched in red lighting, we see that the gang busted in on Jamie and Keri in bed together and knocked Keri out before they beat Jamie down and Packard slashed him to death with his switchblade. Jamie's body was then loaded into the trunk of his car, which was pushed off the edge of a cliff and, with a shotgun blast to the gas tank, blown up as it tumbled down the rocks.

Packard doesn't take kindly to Jake and Keri getting close, but is hardly able to do anything about it, so distracted is he by the fact that The Wraith has come to town on a mission to completely wipe his gang out. The Wraith uses the gang's own methods against them, leading them on chases through the desert that end with members crashing to their deaths, leaving their bodies to be pulled out of the wreckage intact but ghostly pale and with their eyes missing from the sockets. No amount of damage to The Wraith's vehicle can slow it down, even if it's fully destroyed it just magically reforms. Death races aren't the only way The Wraith antagonizes the road pirates, also using telepathic powers to give them flashbacks to the murder of Jamie, in a physical confrontation using telekinetic powers to blow apart the barrel of a shotgun being aimed at it, even walking into the gang's hilltop chop shop and blasting their property apart with its own futuristic-style shotgun.


Fuelled by a soundtrack featuring the likes of Tim Feehan, Ozzy Osbourne, Motley Crue, Robert Palmer, Lion, and Bonnie Tyler, along with a synth score, The Wraith is a highly entertaining action/supernatural revenge flick packed with awesome chase and crash sequences, sort of like a vehicular version of The Crow but without the dark atmosphere or emotional depth. It could also be compared to the 1977 movie The Car, except this time The Car is the good guy.

The Wraith is popcorn fun, and the most important factor in how much a viewer will enjoy it might be how much affection they have for the '80s at large. This is a film with a tone and style that could have only come out of the '80s. Being deeply nostalgic for that decade's style, I of course love pretty much everything about this movie. The thought of going back to 1987, visiting a mom and pop video store, renting The Wraith, and taking its VHS home in a clear plastic case... that's my daydreamy idea of an awesome night.


I love the look of the film, especially the smoky locations lit with colorful gels. A cemetery lit with blue and purple, an alleyway lit teal and green, the red flashbacks, the chop shop with its superfluous strips of neon, etc.

The Wraith itself is a badass character, with a lot of things about it going unexplained. It's not the most logical or perfectly presented concept, but it works.


The characters are fun to watch, brought to life by a cast that includes Charlie Sheen as Jake, Sherilyn Fenn as Keri, Nick Cassavetes as Packard, and Randy Quaid as the town's determined but ultimately ineffectual Sheriff Loomis. Among the gang members are Griffin O'Neal of April Fool's Day (1986) and Ghoulies Go to College, Clint Howard playing Rughead with a shock of hair piled atop his dome, and Jamie Bozian as the soft-spoken Gutterboy, sidekick of the most memorable character in the film aside from The Wraith: David Sherrill as Skank.

Skank is hilarious, in most of his scenes he's either swilling stuff like brake or hydraulic fluid or snorting WD40. He has some hellacious reactions to drinking the auto shop fluids he ingests, as you might imagine, often commenting, "That shit's got some kick!"


Family members and I used to watch The Wraith a lot when it aired on cable in '87 or '88, and Skank was always my favorite character aside from the titular hero. My parents, particularly my father, were so amused by Skank's reactions to drinking hydraulic fluid that I would take to imitating him to get laughs of my own, drinking grapefruit juice in the place of something dangerous. My parents would often buy 6 ounce cans of Donald Duck brand grapefruit juice back then and I didn't like the stuff at all, my reactions to drinking it weren't far off from Skank's. So, for the sake of humor, I would grab a can, take a swig of grapefruit juice, have an intensely disgusted reaction, and say "That's got some kick!"

Since the age of 3 or 4, I've considered The Wraith to be a milestone movie in my life, and to this day I greatly enjoy watching it.


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