Rob’s Car Movie Review: The Wraith (1986)

Ah, the 1980’s… I remember them well having been a teenager throughout most of that odd decade. It was an era of ludicrous hairstyles, obsessive materialism, and a flashy neon and pastel-colored aesthetic determined to be the antithesis of the faded denim and earth-toned seventies.

Many movies and TV shows such as Ruthless People and Miami Vice captured and often conversely established the look and feel of the eighties, but I’d argue that none were more completely steeped in it than the subject of this month’s edition of Rob’s Car Movie Review: The Wraith!

The Wraith theatrical movie poster.

The Wraith theatrical movie poster.

Produced and distributed by New Century Entertainment in 1986, The Wraith was the sophomore directing effort of Mike Marvin, and featured Charlie Sheen in his very first lead role.

Accompanying him were Nick Cassavetes (son of screen legend John Cassavetes), Sherilyn Fenn, Randy Quaid and Clint Howard.

Villain Packard Walsh (Nick Cassavetes).

Villain Packard Walsh (Nick Cassavetes).

At the film’s beginning, an Arizona town is plagued by a gang of ruthless street racers, led by the sociopathic Packard Walsh (Cassavetes).

They roam the desolate roads and highways in a pack of musclecars, forcing innocent motorists to race them for pink slips with the threat of violence. Suddenly, their dominance is threated by an unknown driver in a sleek, futuristic supercar, and members of the gang begin to die in an effort to beat the spectre-like road warrior and take his car.

No-nonsense Sherriff Loomis sees this as an opportunity to rid his town of the gang once and for all. At the same time, the reluctant object of Walsh’s desire, Keri Johnson (Fenn) finds herself entranced with a mysterious stranger, Jake Kesey (Sheen) who rides into town on a motorcycle.

As Walsh’s grip on Keri and the motorists of the town begin to slip, his tactics become more ruthless. Who will claim the streets of the town, and who will win Keri’s heart can only be resolved in a climactic clash of wills.

Jake Kesey (Charlie Sheen) and Keri Johnson (Sherilyn Fenn).

Jake Kesey (Charlie Sheen) and Keri Johnson (Sherilyn Fenn).

Let me get this out of the way right off the top: The Wraith is a bad movie. A very bad movie. Essentially ripping its plot off of Clint Eastwood’s classic western, High Plains Drifter, The Wraith employs every cinematic cliché you could imagine.

Cheesy dialogue, poor cause-and-effect situations, cardboard “boo-hiss” villains, over-the-top acting and fall-flat humor inhabits virtually every frame of this turkey.

Especially bad are the performances by Cassavetes and Sheen (who has in the past been quite vocal about his hatred of the movie), and a ridiculous, cringe-worthy turn by a pompadoured Clint Howard as Rughead who has hopefully been donating his residuals from this one to a starving actor’s fund.

Rughead (Clint Howard) starts a drag race.

Rughead (Clint Howard) starts a drag race.

But if you can avoid doing something bad to your eyes while watching The Wraith, you’ll find that it has some facets that, while not redeeming the film as a whole, can present the viewer with some pretty good, though ephemeral thrills.

For starters, Sherilyn Fenn manages to do an adequate job with the material she has to work with, and looks pretty good doing it. Furthermore, the film’s soundtrack is like a greatest hits collection of eighties favorites, including tracks by Robert Palmer, Mötley Crüe, Billy Idol, Ozzy Osbourne, Bonnie Tyler and more.

Given the poor production value evidenced on screen, and a paltry $2.7 million dollar budget, I’m guessing the producers blew most of their shekels on synchronization rights for all these contemporary tunes.

The Dodge-Chrysler M4S.

The Dodge-Chrysler M4S.

But what really saves the film from utter oblivion are the cars featured in it. Any gearhead will endure the movie’s hour-and-a-half runtime just to gawk at the film’s real star, the mysterious car that challenges the gang’s supremacy.

While not named in the film, the car is actually the Dodge-Chrysler Interceptor M4S, a prototype that was built by the Pentastar brand in 1984 as a technology demonstrator vehicle. A tad dated-looking by today’s standards, the M4S was an earth-shattering design back then, and its appearance in the film shows that the filmmakers knew their target audience and weren’t completely brain-damaged.

Powered by a 2.2L, twin-turbo inline four packing close to 450 horsepower, the M4S was capable in real-life of close to 200 mph and a zero-to-sixty time of four seconds – top hyper-performance for the day.

Walsh's 1977 Chevrolet Corvette C3.

Walsh’s 1977 Chevrolet Corvette C3.

Also cool is Walsh’s 1977 Chevrolet Corvette C3 with modified front and rear fascia, hood, and two-tone paint job.

Another of the gang’s vehicles, a 1966 Plymouth Barracuda, features a paint scheme reminiscent of a World War II era P40 Tigershark fighter, replete with road “kills” stenciled on its front fender.

Other notable cars in the film include a beautiful 1975 Triumph Spitfire 1500, a blown 1977 Pontiac Trans Am and a gleaming white 1987 Dodge Daytona.

The gang's 1966 Plymouth Barracuda.

The gang’s 1966 Plymouth Barracuda.

So long as you are not expecting a masterpiece, and can endure the film’s lower-than-low points, The Wraith can give the average car junkie a handful of thrills. All in all though, I have to give the movie four-and-a-half pistons.4-5pistonssmm

About The Author: Rob Finkelman is a freelance writer for Street Muscle Magazine. He attended and graduated from New York University’s film school in 1992, and subsequently worked in the movie business for twenty years as a documentarian and screenwriter. Combining his two great passions in life – films and cars – and writing about them is a dream job for him. He will be bringing us a Car Movie Review each month, and he’s open to suggestions so list yours below.

About the author

Rob Finkelman

Born and raised in Manhattan, Rob studied film production at New York University's elite Tisch School of the Arts film school. Upon graduating in 1992, he relocated to Los Angeles and established a career in documentary production and screenwriting. In 2015, Rob decided to change tack and combine his two great passions of writing and cars; and began authoring columns for several Formula 1 racing websites and StreetLegalTV. He is an avid automotive and racing enthusiast with a burgeoning collection of classic and musclecars.
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