He’s heaven-sent & hell on wheels: Night Flight selects “The Wraith,” now on AMC’s Shudder

By on December 24, 2017

Night Flight was recently asked by Shudder — the AMC Network’s horror streaming channel — to curate a guest row of content, and so we turned to our resident expert on ’80s cult horror, our social media editor KJ, who selected four films from their cult horror library.

We had asked members of Night Flight’s community to select the fifth movie you’ll find in our row of five cult horror titles, and the winner is David Cronenberg’s 1977 cult fave Rabid, which we recently wrote about in this previous blog post.

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The poll is now closed, and thanks for voting! By the way, we’re still offering 25% OFF on an annual subscription (regularly just $29.99 for the whole year) to Night Flight Plus (promo code: SHUDDER), and a free month of Shudder (promo code: NIGHTFLIGHT)!

Read more about The Wraith below.

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The Wraith — released into theaters on November 21, 1986 — is a new wave sci-fi teen-action soap opera western replete with hot roddin’ road races, spectacular car crashes, a little supernatural effluvia, stunning visual FX, and one of the greatest from-the-grave revenge plots ever committed to celluloid.

First, we’re introduced to a violent gang of degenerate teenage terrorists — led by the possibly psychotic Packard Walsh (Nick Cassavetes) — who haunt the desert highways near fictional Brooks, Arizona, where they challenge unwilling locals to deadly chicken races in which the winner-takes-all stakes are for more than just pink slips.

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These innocent yuppies in this sand-blown nowheresville live in fear of Packard’s thug gang, who have names like Gutterboy, Oogie and Skank (he’s the one with the colorful faux-hawk).

They look like punk rock rejects from Surf Nazis Must Die, except for the mechanic named Rughead, played by the great Clint Howard, who steals the film away easily in his Coke-bottle glasses and comical fro (his hairdo and character name are nods of homage to David Lynch’s Eraserhead).

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Suddenly, rising from out of the Southwestern desert like a blinding sandstorm, comes a mysterious black-clad stranger named Jake Kesey, played by Charlie Sheen (later that same year he also appeared in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).

Jake motors around on a Honda bike and right away ends up flirting with Packard’s best girl, Keri (sexy Sherilyn Fenn), which drives Packard even more insane with jealousy.

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Jake’s also got the sleekest, shit-hot car in town — a souped-up jet black Dodge M4S which he calls his “Turbo Interceptor” — and he’s not afraid of the feathered-hair, puka shell necklace-wearing Packard or his gang of misfit weirdos.

The Chrysler Corporation apparently spent $1.5 million to build Jake’s MS4 — for “Mid-engine 4-cylinder Sport” — including a reported $38,000 for the bronze pearl paint job alone. In fact, more than sixty cars — including the Wraith’s car, bad guy cars, cop cars and crash cars — were used in the film.

Thankfully we have Rughead around to explain to all of us that Jake is really a “wraith,” a mysterious phantom-like presence resurrected from death with the ability to appear and disappear at will.

“A wraith, man,” Rughead explains to his buddy. “A ghost, an evil spirit… and it ain’t cool.”

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It turns out Jake is back in town to fulfill his destiny to challenge Packard and his pals to deadly drag races, but the real plan is might be to exact a pain-filled revenge against these desert road pirates.

He’s also back in town to reclaim the love of his one-time girlfriend, Keri, an adorable red bikini-clad beach bunny who works at Big Kay’s, a malt shop drive-in where the waitresses all wear rollerskates (keep an eye out for 14-year-old Tucson cutie Brooke Burke).

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The Wraith reaches its surprising climax with Jake’s final reckoning with Packard and his band of outlaw punks, and there’s also a nice little twist at the end of this little teen-throb actioner.

Writer-director Mike Marvin’s original script, incidentally, was titled Turbo Wraith Interceptor (Mel Gibson’s car in The Road Warrior was the last of the Turbo Interceptors).

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It’s probably worth noting that several of the actors here are the offspring of the Hollywood celeb ruling class: in addition to Charlie Sheen (youngest son of Martin, born Carlos Irwin Estévez), Nick Cassavetes (the son of director John Cassavetes and actress Gena Rowlands), and Clint Howard (brother of Ron, son of the late Rance Howard), there’s also Ryan O’Neal’s son Griffin as Oggie Fisher, and goofy Randy Quaid also makes an appearance as Sheriff G.L. Loomis, the town’s incompetent constable.

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Director Mike Marvin’s screenplay for The Wraith — influenced by movies like American Graffiti, High Plains Drifter and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior — is a hoot too, and chock-full of great comebacks and insults (“Hairball,” “crater heads,” “maggot pie” and “got lunched out” are just a few of the film’s notable locutions).

Marvin came into the world of filmmaking through ski documentaries lensed in his local Lake Tahoe Squaw Valley environs, and ultimately he directed his own ski-bum comedy, Hot Dog: The Movie.

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Marvin also had a hand in the great skiing sequences in another Night Flight cult fave, Better Off Dead with John Cusack, and that memorable ski-and-parachute opening sequence from the James Bond thriller, The Spy Who Loved Me.

Even though The Wraith is chock-a-block full of incredible stuntwork by everyone involved, there was a serious accident on the second day of shooting — filming began on January 23, 1986, in and around Tucson, Arizona and neighboring Pima County — when eight members of the crew were injured (camera operator Bruce Ingram ended up dying from his injuries, and another was left a paraplegic) when a flatbed camera truck slammed into a rock wall.

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Marvin also directed 1986’s Hamburger: The Motion Picture, and later helmed a few steamy erotic adventures, using the pseudonym Jake Kesey.

The Wraith‘s music soundtrack is also notable for featuring tracks by Ozzy Osbourne, Robert Palmer, Billy Idol and Motley Crue, among many other artists that fans of the ’80s Night Flight show will no doubt recognize.

Watch The Wraith — one of our Night Flight Selects — on AMC Shudder.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.