“The Wraith” is like “The Fast and the Furious” mixed with “Ghost Rider,” except that that sounds amazing and “The Wraith” isn’t. This meaty supernatural teenage melodrama stars Charlie Sheen, and comes to us from an era when it was acceptable to do things like put Charlie Sheen in your movie. In fact, “The Wraith” came out just weeks before “Platoon,” at the end of 1986, capping off a banner year for Sheen that also included a cameo in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and a cumulative thirteen pounds of cocaine.
“The Wraith” takes place in a desolate Arizona town that consists of a lake, a burger joint, a couple of cops, and three dozen teenagers. The menace of the town is Packard (Nick Cassavetes), a hawk-faced hot-rodder who’s always forcing the other teens to participate in drag races against him, which he always wins. Usually the stakes are the titles to the cars, so by now Packard must own every car in town and the other teens must be walking everywhere, yet somehow there are still cars for Packard to race.
Besides drag racing and general bullying, the other thing Packard is good at is being a jerk to his girlfriend, Kerry (Sherilyn Fenn). He gets sputteringly jealous if she so much as talks to a guy who isn’t him, and he says things like, “If you’re not gonna be my girl, you’re not gonna be anybody’s.” Kerry’s previous boyfriend, Jamie, was murdered, and they never found the killer, even though there’s like 40 people in the town, tops, and even though it’s fairly obvious that it was Packard. The local sheriff is Randy Quaid, though, so that might be a factor in the murder clearance rate.
As for Kerry, she doesn’t seem to like Packard that much, but she doesn’t hate him enough to break up, either. There are probably things about him that she likes, or at least that she used to like. Her attitude toward Packard is the same one most of us have toward “The Office.”
Into this depressing scenario comes Jake (Mr. Charlie Sheen), a mysterious, feathery-haired outsider who rolls into town on a motorcycle, just like Marlon Brando in “The Wild One” or Ralph the mouse in “Mouse on a Motorcycle.” Jake gets on Packard’s bad side immediately by talking to Kerry, first on the street and later at the lake, where the local teens hang out all the time when they are not at the burger joint. Also at the lake, Jake meets dead Jamie’s brother, Billy (Matthew Barry), who is still sad about his brother being murdered by Whoever It Was (it was Packard). A snippet of flashback shows Jamie being stabbed in the shoulder blades. Within seconds of showing us this flashback, the movie shows us Jake taking his shirt off at the lake, revealing mysterious scars on his shoulder blades. Jake is the resurrected version of Jamie, still bearing death scars but otherwise upgraded from anonymous guy to Charlie Sheen.
That night, after the teens have finished their shift hanging out at the lake and have clocked in to their shift hanging out at the burger joint, a mysterious black hot rod pulls up, the identity of its driver hidden behind tinted windows (but for sure it’s Jake, right?). Packard has no choice but to challenge this automobile and its anonymous driver (Jake) to a race — but instead of participating in the race himself, Packard has one of his flunkies do it, in the flunky’s own car. We haven’t seen Packard do this before. He’s usually pretty hands-on with his bullying and menacing, as recommended in the bestselling book “7 Habits of Highly Effective Bullies and Menaces,” by Donald Trump. Maybe Packard has another race scheduled for this slot, or perhaps some domestic abuse, and that’s why he delegated it? No, he sticks around to watch the race … which ends with the flunky driving over a cliff and dying.
Now it all makes sense. Packard stayed out of the race for screenwriter reasons: it had to end in death, and it’s too early in the movie to kill off the main villain. That poor flunky was nothing more than a metaphorical Enterprise crew member in an allegorical red shirt.
Packard and his surviving flunkies are traumatized by the death, but not so traumatized that they cannot continue fixing up their cars at the garage. It’s like if your friend died while skydiving, the first thing you’d probably do is sew some rad patches onto your parachute so you’ll look awesome the next time you go skydiving. The phantom driver shows up at the garage, his identity hidden by a helmet (but it’s totally still Jake), and he fires a couple dozen bullets into the guys’ cars. If, as we have surmised, the driver is Jake, and Jake is the reincarnation of Jamie, and Jamie is back to get revenge on his killers, then he is going about it inefficiently. The flunkies were at most accessories to the crime, and their cars had nothing to do with it at all, and Packard is standing RIGHT THERE WHY DON’T YOU JUST SHOOT HIM??
Well, because then the movie would be over. Nobody wants that, except the people watching it. So the movie continues to drop “hints” about the mysterious driver being Jake, and about Jake being Jamie, interspersed with scenes of Jake and Kerry flirting behind Packard’s back. There are also many, many scenes of drag racing. The movie is under the impression that we want to see A LOT of drag racing, even though it’s just teenagers driving fast down a street, which they tend to do anyway. Whoever told the movie that we were really keen on drag racing, you’re a real prankster!
Anyway, another flunky dies in another race against the unidentified anonymous mystery driver (Jake); this time it’s a jock dude who would never have been hanging out with somebody like Packard in the first place, much less taking orders from him. (To give you a frame of reference, Packard’s other goons are meth-heads named Skank and Gutterboy, and a frizzy-haired tech geek played by Clint Howard.)
Meanwhile, Packard continues to express his love for Kerry through alarming dialogue such as this:
“You and me, we’re like blood brothers.” [He cuts her palm with a pocketknife, then his own.] “I guess you could call us blood lovers. Because that’s how much I love you.”
How much does Packard love Kerry? As much as two lovers who are related by blood!
Despite this, Kerry keeps socializing with Jake on the sly, unable to resist his charms. Remember, this was 1986, when a character played by Charlie Sheen could theoretically be the less sleazy of two options. At last everything comes to a head, and there’s a final drag race between Jake and Packard that turns into a game of chicken that turns into Packard’s car exploding when it smashes into Jake’s. Jake is unharmed, of course; he is a supernatural manifestation. Never play chicken with someone who is a supernatural manifestation. Packard learned that the hard way. The hard, tedious, nonsensical way.