STRANGE SIGHTINGS IN THE NETFLIX BASEMENT
After watching some dire Netflix films from the 2000’s, it amused me to see this blast from the past show up. So let’s set our way-back machine to 1986 and check it out.
The Wraith (1986)
The Wraith is a Ghost Revenge Hot Rod Saga starring Charlie Sheen. This is the type of movie that turns up a lot in the 80s, before screenwriting books homogenized how movies should be written. The plot doesn’t make a lot of sense, the dialogue is bonkers, and there are maybe four locations, tops. But the film more than makes up for those issues with character actor weirdness and vehicular destruction. And it’s from one of the auteurs behind Hot Dog… The Movie AND Hamburger: The Motion Picture, so you know you’re in good hands.
We start the story when bright lights from outer space fly through the desert and attack some cactus and a billboard. Or are they from… Heaven? The movie leaves it open for our interpretation. Then the lights melt a “SLOW” sign letting us know that these lights are renegades, and they will not go slow. Then they convene to form The Wraith, a super cool Dodge Twin Turbo M4S, which looks pretty futuristic even by today’s standards. And it comes with a futuristic Ghost Driver wearing a motorcycle helmet.
Then blammo, into a very 80s synth score and a B or C Grade cast from the 80s. Along with Charlie Sheen are a pre-Twin Peaks Sherilyn Fenn, Nick (son of John) Cassavetes, and Randy Quaid. Oh, and Clint Howard in one of his finest roles.
So a dude with his feathered 80s mullet and blonde girlfriend are cruising down the highway somewhere in Arizona, when they’re stopped by Nick Cassavetes, sporting a very Hasselhoff hairdo, and his gang of 80s movie stereotypes: The Punk Rocker, The Nerd, The Jock, The Vagrant, and Vanilla Shabba Doo from the Breakin’ Movies. Okay, maybe Vanilla Shabba Doo never became a popular cliché. Then they kidnap Blonde Girlfriend and force Mullet Dude to drag race for his car. Then, to flip one of the Drag Racing Movie Clichés, instead of a sexy girl in a mini-skirt waving a green flag to start the race, they have Clint Howard with Eraserhead hair and overalls wave a filthy rag. Bold choice there, Wraith filmmakers. Then there’s a drag race through the desert. One thing I love about 80s movies is that Ozzy Osbourne can pop up at any time on the soundtrack.
So Nick Cassavetes wins, and he says “Hey guys, she’s all ours. Nice and legal.” Except for the whole coerced into an illegal drag race, kidnapping, attempted murder, and no money exchanging hands. But otherwise, yeah that would count as a legal sale.
Now 8 minutes in and we’re into our third groovin’ 80s song. At this point, I can’t imagine they can keep up this pace for 90 minutes… but they do. I lost count, but there’s like 12 or 13 Heavy Metal anthems on the soundtrack. Righteous, dude.
Then shirtless, chest-hairless Charlie Sheen shows up on a motorcycle, and a nearly unrecognizable, natural hair-colored Sherilyn Fenn walks up in an outfit I can only describe as the epitome of 80s shapeless shirt-dress and a belt.
All the characters in the movie show up at a “teens hanging out in the river party,” and three scenes in a row establish Nick Cassavetes as a possessive, psycho dirt-bag. Charlie Sheen is checking out the red-hot river boogie action when a dude in a Gilligan’s hat greets him with, “Hey Bro. Man it’s a hot one today, huh.” He notices Charlie Sheen has some mysterious scars on his back. Then Cassavetes has a flashback where he tortures and kills Sheen? Maybe? Not really sure. I’m guessing this is the movie’s central mystery. It’s a bit sleazy as the guy and his girlfriend are getting it on, still wearing underwear, mind you, when the punks come in and beat and murder him. The filmmakers get mileage out of this scene by coming back to it about five more times, just to add more sex and gore into a fairly bloodless story.
Cassavetes sics his punk rock tweakers, Skank and Gutterboy, on Sheen. Cassavetes is such a hard case, he only threatens his own dudes with the switchblade. Skank assures him, “We’ll remind the cock-stacker. We’ll use our influence.” I have to say, this movie has wonderful dialogue. Not good, necessarily, but original. “Get rid of that zombie piss you’re drinking before it turns you into a mushroom.”
Then we get a Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” video where crop-top, roller-skating waitresses boogie around Kay’s Drive Thru Diner. This movie feels like a 1950s Juvenile Delinquent film, but with 80s hair and pastels.
Twenty minutes in, the Wraith car shows up and drag races with Vanilla Shabba Doo. Somehow Shabba Doo takes the lead but, magically, the Wraith car is sitting in the road. They crash and explode. Then Shabba Doo’s red Daytona drives off the road and explodes AGAIN and tumbles down the hill engulfed in flames for what seems like an hour. That was pretty awesome. You don’t get that in movies anymore. Now hundreds of self-driving computer cars tumble off buildings in Fate of the Furious and nobody bats an eye.
Randy Quaid enters the movie as Loomis, the cowboy-hatted Sheriff who serves no purpose except as an excuse for Randy to deliver hilarious lines. Randy: “What about you maggot. Huh? You got anything to say? Or are your veins bloated with brain eradicator, too?” I can appreciate the movie’s strong anti-drug message. There is some pointless police investigating, since we KNOW The Wraith did it.
Then the Space Driver shows up with a futuristic rifle. He kicks open barn doors and is dramatically back-lit, and it’s less than impressive. He looks like a scrawny Daft Punk member with plastic IV tubes glued to his suit, but it’s Charlie Sheen and it does have something to do with the murder flashbacks.
Wraith Driver shoots up the cars, because he’s a badass, and clearly has hatred for old pinball machines. “He hates these cans. Stay away from the cans,” To quote Steve Martin in The Jerk. At this point, Sheen could’ve shot-gunned all the punks, and this could’ve been a much shorter movie. Instead, he murders those cars dead. Which doesn’t make sense because The Wraith drag races guys to death. If you’re itching to drag race them, wouldn’t you help fix their cars? It’s like Jason Voorhees slashing the tires of the bus before any counselors can get to Crystal Lake.
We’re up to 80s heavy metal songs #8 and #9 as we get a second drag race with fiery collision. Except the snot-nosed punk’s yellow corvette explodes three times. This movie is just incredible.
I’ll fast forward a bit and say we have Song #11 scoring an icky Sherilyn Fenn-Charlie Sheen love-making montage in a pond. Which I guess is supposed to be sexy but comes immediately after another one of those “coitus interruptus” murder flashbacks. Like I said, this movie is more than a little sleazy.
Finally we get to the big Wraith-versus-Cassavetes drag race as all of his other minions have exploded. I’m not going to tell you who wins, but you’ve got a Ghost Car from Space that can teleport and repair itself, versus a goofy Hasselhoff-looking scumbag driving a car that was built by druggy punk rockers.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The Wraith is so 80s that it hurts. After watching all of these recently made anodyne future dreck movies, it’s fun to revisit a sleazy, heavy metal kind of slasher movie with lots of practical car explosions where Clint Howard has been given multiple scenes to be weird and Randy Quaid is still in lovable, cantankerous mode delivering gonzo dialogue. If this sounds like your speed, you should definitely check it out.