Rentals Revisited – The Wraith (1986)

As mentioned in the book, Adventures in VHS began life as a series of articles for a site named Eat Sleep Live Film, which allowed me to revisit some of the wonderful movies I had rented on VHS as a child. These articles would see me rewatching theses films either on Blu-ray, DVD or through some digital format or other, to see how they held up as an older genre fan. I had originally planned to add them into the book, but in all honesty, they didn’t quite feel good enough. With that in mind, please bear in mind that they appear here today in their exact, original and unedited form – and are probably a bit shit.

The Wraith (1986)

Medusa Home Video – MO091

(Originally posted April 15th 2011)

For me, one of the greatest things about the 1980s was the local video stores that seemed to populate every street corner. These miniature movie meccas spread like wildfire across suburbia in the mid-to-late part of the decade in service of the millions who furnishing their homes with a VHS player. I remember visiting many of them on a regular basis, whether renting, browsing, picking up one of the free magazines or bugging the vendor for some free posters. But while there was no shortage of rental stores in our town, there was only one that could guarantee my dad’s business – Video World in Swinton.

Like so many of the small, independent stores that flourished around this time, Video World was regular little shop that had been fitted out with some shelves and was being run by some random bloke. These were the days before Blockbuster had come to town, cramming Butterkist and Ben and Jerry’s down everyone’s throat via their sniveling teenage wankrag staff members and identikit stores.

While there were endless gore-filled horror movies I feasted on during these glorious years, there were definitely some titles that were slightly more suited to a kid of my age. However, that didn’t mean they came without the usual deliciously-designed sleeve and fabulous tagline. For the second of my Rentals Revisited articles, I decided to check in with one such VHS-era gem – Mike Marvin’s 1986 sci-fi action fantasy The Wraith.

My recollection of The Wraith from back in those heady VHS days is, to say the least, vague. While there are films I’ll write about here that left specific scenes, images or plot points seared into my mind, for others, merely the cover art will remain. I think remembered The Wraith as a moody, violent car chase action film about a vengeful supernatural force. But for the most part, it was the imposing figure staring back at me from the front of the video box that brought me back for a rewatch.

Clad in a black leather biker’s costume enhanced with strange Geiger-esque body armor and a single beam of light peering out from behind a faceless visor, this is certainly a memorable individual. As he steps into the foreground, we can just about see a glimpse of some mysterious gull-winged vehicle behind him. Bathed in an ethereal white light, it’s a typically glamorous piece of VHS art and was certainly enough to win my attention then and stir my appetite for nostalgia now.

But if this was as much as I could recall of The Wraith, imagine my surprise when I discovered it features enfant-terrible-de-jour Charlie ‘Tiger Blood’ Sheen in the lead. Not only that, but it also boasts the one and only Miss Sherilyn Fenn – a woman I was so besotted with as mischievous teen sex bomb Audrey Horne in Twin Peaks some years later that I almost wanted to kill myself rather than spend another day in this cruel and unfair world… I was 13 at the time, give me a break.

Here though, Sheen plays Jake, a strong-but-silent young guy who rides into a small Arizona town one day and, it transpires, is the reincarnation of Jamie – a teen who was brutally killed there some time ago. Jake has returned to have his revenge on the local gang that murdered him and free Keri (Fenn), the love he left behind who is now the unwitting property of its leader, Packard. Keri’s girl-next-door is about as far away from the sultry femme fatales Fenn would play later in her straight-to-video career, but happily, her exposed boobs are as present as ever.

One of the most striking things you’ll notice about The Wraith though is not its cast – but its star-studded soundtrack, which at points makes the whole thing feel very Lost Boys-esque. Alongside famous names like Ozzy Osborne, and Robert Palmer, you also get a slice of Stan ‘The Touch’ Bush. It all adds up to an absolute asset for the film overall which really adds to how some of the many action sequences, car races and chases ramp up as it goes on.

Speaking of which, these moments come relatively thick and fast, and while none are especially long or innovative in terms of direction, they certainly get the blood increasingly pumping. From car versus car, to car versus motorbike, car versus cops and even car verses building, there’s plenty of explosive, petrol-fuelled action to keep you amused.

While I’ve mentioned Sheen and Fenn, special mention has to go to a couple of other actors you’ll surely recognise. Nick Cassavetes plays Packard with a comic swagger that’s lovely to watch and Randy Quaid’s Sherriff Loomis is bombastic without being too silly. If I had one problem with his character it would be his determination to find Jamie’s killers, despite the fact it seems no one has in the past thought to investigate it. Even Jamie’s own brother seems pretty nonplussed by who the obvious perpetrators are, so its a little strange to see the cold case suddenly warmed up. Finally, I should mention the one and only Clint Howard. Many of you will remember him from Gentle Ben, others will have seen him in Apollo 13. But here, he rocks an Eraserhead-style fro that frankly looks impossible and, coupled with his milk bottle glasses and perma-shock expression, make him a frantically energetic joy to behold.

Highlights (apart from the exploding cars, Sherilyn Fenn’s boobs and Howard’s mega-fro) include a scene involving some genuine ‘Torpedoes of Truth’ from Sheen such as : “People like Packer pray on fear and weakness” and “Courage isn’t easy to come by”. Preach Charlie, preach. The Arizona deserts and mountains form a familiar yet attractive backdrop for the many road sequences and while the ending peters out a little, it does feature a touching moment where Jamie’s brother Billy calls after Jake, finally realising who he is. I’m not afraid to say it, I choked up just a little.

I can’t say The Wraith was every bit what I had remembered, but then, I don’t remember that much. What I can say is that having had so much fun recently with Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire and The Warriors, this serves as a thoroughly enjoyable companion piece that, while very much a time capsule of the era, is a great place to pay a visit.