Film reviews and more since 2009

The Wraith (1986) review

Dir. Mike Marvin

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★

A ghost has returned to Earth in a souped-up sports car to exact his revenge on a gang of murderous gearheads led by Packard (Nick Cassavetes). Packard caught Keri (Sherilyn Fenn), the love of his life, making out with a man named Jamie, and killed him in a crime of passion. The incident still haunts the sleepy town of Brooks, Arizona.

Sometime after, a mysterious man named Jake (Charlie Sheen) arrives on a dirt bike. He’s barely in town for a cup of coffee before he’s romancing Keri and befriending Packard’s brother (Matthew Berry). Now, Packard not only has another young hotshot making moves on his girlfriend, he also an apparition to worry about. Trying to make sense of the madness is Randy Quaid as a local police officer, oddly one of the more measured individuals in a sea of 80s archetypes.

Such is the plot of The Wraith, a dreary and sluggish marathon of car chases and violence strung together by a terribly thin narrative. The promising setup is quickly undone by Mike Marvin’s script, which is lax on character work. In an effort to keep Sheen’s Jake an enigmatic drifter, the focus is largely on Packard, an insufferably unlikable villain whose heinous qualities Cassavetes dials up to an incorrigible degree.

Marvin directs this film like an extended fast food/car commercial of the era. The only real visual prowess on display comes during the chase sequences, which feel grittily realistic compared to the slick and one-dimensional scenes we would be forced to endure in future genre-works. In reality, these chases should be electrifying, but Marvin forgets that the stakes and human drama are the gasoline to these extended vehicular battles. Without much compelling drama and scant character development, they simply function as bursts of energy before we’re back to the same crop of dolts trying to make sense of the Wraith itself.

Considerably more effort needed to be given to the exposition of this story to make it effective as more than an advertisement for 1980s coolness. With middling special effects and limited star power outside of Sheen, there’s reason to believe that most of the film’s budget went to securing the rights to Ozzy Osbourne, Mötley Crüe, Bonnie Tyler, and Robert Palmer songs. The music is The Wraith‘s saving grace. Can you imagine if the music licensing wasn’t secured for the home video release and was thus replaced with stock tracks? Then we’d really have a joyless disaster on our hands.

NOTE: As of this writing, The Wraith is available to stream on Plex TV and Tubi, free of charge.

Starring: Charlie Sheen, Nick Cassavetes, Sherilyn Fenn, Randy Quaid, Clint Howard, Matthew Berry, and Griffin O’Neal. Directed by: Mike Marvin.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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