The Wraith

January 17, 2011

The Wraith is an insane little movie that tries to graft the black humor and nihilistic action of the Mad Max films onto the teensploitation genre. As you might guess, this produces one of the biggest head-scratchers of the season.

Some tortuous exposition lets us know that a kid who was murdered by a gang of hooligans has come back to Earth from outer space or heaven or somewhere. He retuns to his small Arizona hometown to avenge himself.

He doesn’t look like his former self (he looks like Charlie Sheen), so nobody recognizes him. He takes his revenge by challenging the town bullies to high-speed car races, which he always wins because he parks his supernatural car in the middle of the road and lets the opponent run smack into it at 100 miles an hour. Sheen, of course, has the advantage of being already dead, so he just reconstitutes himself from the wreckage.

This is pretty nutty in itself, and there’s also the dead guy’s ex-girlfriend (Sherilyn Fenn), who is now dating the “genetic misfire” (Nick Cassavetes) who was responsible for the murder.

When she and Sheen get alone together, it prompts sappy dialogue and thus some of the film’s unintentional humor. The writer-director, Mike Marvin, doesn’t seem too inspired by the straight stuff. He likes the car crashes and creepy villains much better.

Marvin appears to be under the spell of not just The Road Warrior but also Repo Man, which sustained a loopy supernatural humor much more effectively (and starred Sheen’s brother Emilio Estevez).

Where Marvin shows some flair is with the second-rank crazies, the minions of Cassavetes. They’re a bunch of quivering, punked-out weirdos with names such as Skank and Gutterboy, and they get all the funny lines in the film—that is, if a non sequitur like “Hey, we got our constipational rights,” qualifies as a funny line.

The most otherworldly of these fellows is played by Clint Howard, erstwhile child star (“Gentle Ben”) who’s kept his career going by playing goofy little roles in his brother Ron’s films. Here he plays a car nut named Rughead, and he wears a tall fright wig just like the one worn by the title character of David Lynch’s Eraserhead.

Whenever I see Howard, I always think of David Letterman’s description of him as “that guy who looks like he got his head caught in a paint shaker.” That’s him, all right. This movie is a bit like that—caught in a paint shaker, and going every which way. Even so, I’ve got a feeling that, given the right mood and a tendency toward cultishness, some people are actually going to like this thing. I’ll wait for the next Mad Max sequel.

First published in the Herald, November 27, 1986

“The minions of Cassavetes”—how did I not start that band? This film, a typical artifact from the age of Fenn, followed close on the heels of Mike Marvin’s other 1986 film, Hamburger—The Motion Picture, but he seems to have lost his way after that. Also, nothing against Clint Howard, who’s done lots more things that just pop up in brother Ron’s movies, although he does that admirably. The Letterman line simply stuck.