Packard Walsh (Nick Cassavetes) runs his own illegal business in used cars. He will spot a car he likes out on the Arizona roads, and get his gang to help him stop it, then challenges the driver to a race. If the driver of the car loses to Packard, then he also loses his car and has to walk home. All this is going well until Packard's past starts to catch up with him, as he has a shadowy secret involving the murder of the boyfriend of Keri (Sherilyn Fenn), a girl he is obsessed with. This obsession is not reciprocated, and when a new boy arrives in town, Jake (Charlie Sheen), Packard sees him as a threat to his relationship, especially as Keri has taken a liking to the stranger...
One of those eighties movies which flopped at the cinema but enjoyed more success on home video, The Wraith was written by its director, Mike Marvin, and resembles one of those pseudo-westerns that cropped up when the genre fell out of favour around this time, with its attractive desert scenery. What it really appears to be is a teen version of High Plains Drifter, with the murder victim returning in the guise of a super-talented racer, sort of like the seventies movie The Car only with the paranormal vehicle on the side of the good guys in this instance. Considering he's the star, Sheen is hardly in this film, as we're not supposed to work out that the ghostly driver might - and I'm not saying he is, so no spoilers here - be Jake.
You could almost tick off the eighties teen movie emblems that crop up to make the film go over better with its target audience. There's the fast cars, naturally, the macho posturing, the attractive girlfriend with not much to do, the not-as-casual-as-they-would-like-to-sound slang terms, the snippets of rock music (courtesy of Ozzy Osbourne, Robert Palmer, Billy Idol and Motley Crue, among unimaginatively picked others), and general angst that will be resolved before the movie ends. Unless you're a baddie of course. Packard's gangs consist of some punkish types, including Clint Howard with a huge hairdo, and a man who drinks brake fluid, but they're all strictly second fiddle to the towering Cassavetes, who sneers his way through his lines and quickly becomes tiresome.
The Wraith makes his presence felt by joining a race with the gang (not with Packard, he has to last until the end of the film), and arranging the contest so that he gets far enough ahead to stop in the middle of the road so his rival can crash into him and die. Whereupon the wonder car (which resembles K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider without that moving red light thing at the front) can magically reassemble itself and speed off. It's not long before the punks are being picked off one by one, and the local police, led by Randy Quaid, are taking an interest. Nobody will talk, and the mystery driver is impossible to track down, so that the cops will show up too late to prevent anything happening, and when they set up a road block they receive serious damage to their vehicles.
To be fair, the stunts (which caused the death of one of the crew in real life), are not too bad, and you can't beat those car's point of view shots for cranking up the tension. However, if the film has minor novelty value, it suffers a serious lack of surprises and anyone who hasn't worked out who Jake really is after the first five minutes just isn't paying attention. There are a couple of visually nice ideas such as Jake's motorcycle disappearing into the distance in the form of shooting stars, but the cheesier moments are more abundant, like the gravestone with Packard's name on it, or the supposedly stylish opening which sees those shooting stars zooming about the night sky and chopping bits off a cactus. Recommended if you like fast cars, Sherilyn Fenn (but not Charlie Sheen, he appears only briefly, as I say) or you just can't get enough of the eighties, even the less memorable relics like The Wraith.