The term “exploitation film” usually refers to those elements of a trashy movie that are easy to exploit for marketing purposes: sex, violence, and the like. Mike Marvin’s 1986 teen-oriented science-fiction/horror flick The Wraith was an exploitation film from the get-go—albeit one with a slightly bigger budget than the norm—but oddly enough, some of its elements are more exploitable now than they were then. With a few exceptions, The Wraith looks and sounds like every other over-lit, synthesizer-heavy, showdown-in-an-empty-warehouse ’80s actioner. But the soundtrack also features songs by Honeymoon Suite, Bonnie Tyler, Ozzy Osbourne, and a plethora of big-name ’80s rockers, and the cast includes Charlie Sheen, Randy Quaid, Sherilyn Fenn, Clint Howard, and Nick Cassavetes. In some alternate version of 1986, The Wraith was probably the biggest hit of the year, just edging out Top Gun.
In this universe, though, The Wraith came and went quickly—perhaps a little too quickly. It’s hardly a lost classic, but it has a lot more on the ball than the average B-movie, and it’s definitely worthy of the features-packed special edition now available on DVD. Cassavetes is suitably sleazy as a small-town thug who lords it over his lackeys “Skank,” “Gutterboy,” and “Rughead” (the latter played by Howard with Eraserhead hair), while defying swaggering sheriff Quaid and controlling the life of sexy carhop Fenn. Then Sheen cruises into town on a motorcycle, refusing to be bullied, right around the time that a mysterious helmeted dude in a slick black sports car starts challenging Cassavetes’ drag-race supremacy. Could Sheen possibly be connected to that damned, elusive Mystery Racer?
The Wraith’s plot is predictable and its genre nods skimpy (primarily limited to The Mystery Racer’s ability to resurrect himself after crashes), but Marvin directs with real energy and wit. Whether he’s bathing a flashback sequence in stoplight red or pumping up the iconic Americana of letterman jackets, drive-ins, and muscle cars, The Wraith is plainly aware of its own cheesiness. It isn’t tongue-in-cheek or winking, though. It’s more a shameless indulgence of drive-in awesomeness, years before such indulgences were fashionable.
Key features: A commentary track by Marvin and multiple featurettes about the movie’s troubled production (during which a cameraman was killed) and its bitchin’ cars.