FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological*
“Vengeful vehicle” films range from “haunted autos” like Stephen King’s CHRISTINE to cars and trucks who have ghost drivers at the wheel, but so far no one’s done this trope better than Steven Spielberg’s DUEL, which adjured the supernatural in favor of uncanny chills and thrills. That said, these two “killer car” films are better than average.
THE WRAITH, written and directed by Marvin Miller, tells the story of the comeuppance of a gang of motor-head thugs in a small Arizona town. Led by head thug Packard Walsh (Nick Cassavetes), the gang just manages to keep clear of the law while preying on local citizens, such as Keri (Sherilyn Fenn), who lost her boyfriend Jamie some years ago in an apparent accident. Then two mystery men show up in town. One seems to be an ordinary fellow named Jake (Charlie Sheen), riding into town on a dirt-bike and starting up a romance with Keri, much to the displeasure of Packard, who views the young woman as his property. The other newcomer is the black-clad, helmet-wearing driver of a Turbo Interceptor, who never speaks but repeatedly challenges the members of Packard’s gang to road-races—races which always end in a gang-member’s death.
One doesn’t have to have seen a Zorro movie to intuit a connection between the two new arrivals, and so it’s not much of a spoiler for me to say that Jake and the helmeted driver—dubbed “the Wraith” by one of the more literate thugs—are the same entity. Jake, in fact, is Jamie reborn in a new body and given a celestial super-car that can vanish from sight when pursued by cops. (Heaven must have felt really generous with this particular victim of foul play.) The Wraith has been empowered to kill off the men responsible for his “accident,” and apparently his only limitation is that he must slay his victims with some sort of vehicular attack. The restless spirit usually slays via the racing-challenge—a practice used by Packard himself, forcing local Arizonans to surrender their cars if they lose a race—though in one scene, he does kill two thugs by driving his Turbo through the shack they occupy. This mode of execution aligns the Wraith with comic-book avengers like the Spectre, who, as I’ve written here, far outclass many of their mortal opponents but still fall within the superhero idiom. (One minor amusement of the film is that it places famed scofflaw Charlie Sheen squarely within the company of “costumed do-gooders.”)
The race-scenes are well filmed, but in dramatic terms the script raises questions it fails to answer. It’s one thing to have a spirit return to Earth in quest of vengeance, but WRAITH goes further in allowing Jake to start a new romantic life with Keri, just as if he were a regular old human being. Jake even gives the Turbo to Billy, brother of the late Billy, just as if it had suddenly become your garden-variety gas-guzzler. I like a happy ending as much as anyone, but here it comes off as forced and phony.
PHANTOM RACER is, unlike WRAITH, not a combative film, and “the ghost in the machine” never manifests except through the killer car. But RACER is far better in dramatic terms.
Two young men, Cutter McCullough (Adam Batrick) and J.J. Sawyer (Greg Evigan), race against one another in a small country town. Originally friends who drank and chased girls together, the two become rivals on the racetrack. Further, though Cutter’s dating a looker named Tammy (Nicole Eggert) at the time of their big race, J.J. and Tammy have already slept together, though it’s not clear why they didn’t become more open about the relationship. Cutter is so desperate to win the big race that he has J.J.’s car rigged to fail. But an accident ensues in which Cutter burns to death and J.J. survives. But J.J., knowing nothing of the rigged car, is so broken up by Cutter’s death that he leaves town for the next sixteen years.
After that passage of time, J.J.’s driving a truck for a living, but one of his jobs brings him back to the old hometown. He once more meets Tammy, now living with (though probably not sleeping with) Cutter’s brother Cliff. More importantly, Tammy has a trouble-making daughter, Jesse (Brenna O’Brien), who’s about sixteen years old—and anyone who thinks her age just a coincidence hasn’t seen many movies.
Cliff, who rigged J.J.’s car for Cutter, reveals what he’s been working on all those years: a reconstruction of the race-car in which Cutter perished. Significantly, there’s no indication of anything supernatural about the car, until J.J. cuts his hand and drops a little blood on the hood. This event, seemingly borrowed from any number of Dracula films, apparently allows the spirit of Cutter to return to Earth and inhabit the car. Soon the “phantom racer” starts a killing spree meant to culminate in the deaths of J.J., Tammy and Jesse, who is (you guessed it) J.J.’s daughter.
Despite the derivative nature of the story, the three principals—Evigan, Eggert, and O’Brien— manage to infuse their struggle against the killer car with a fair amount of solid melodrama—regrets about past decisions, parental conflict, et al. (A cute moment occurs when J.J. tells Jesse that she’s just like her mother, which is not something the rebellious teen wants to hear.) The Cutter-Car usually just runs people down, but uses a few Freddy Kruger-like death-methods, like strangling an attempted car-thief with the car’s seatbelt. Inevitably, J.J.’s past catches up with him, forcing him to race against Cutter one more time, though the denouement focuses less on a contest of skill than on trapping the vile vehicle in a trap—making it a subcombative film.
Evigan, known best for extremely light roles like TEKWAR and B.J. AND THE BEAR, does stretch his acting muscles here, albeit not by much.