“Spiral” is also new to Blu-Ray this week.
The term “quintessential 80s movie” can apply to a fair number of flicks from the decade. While there are measurable factors we can look at like cars, clothes, hair, and music, it’s more than that. The endearing movies of the 80s have an intangible quality to them, like a spirit, that makes them distinctly 80s. While I still regard Walter Hill’s energetic, colorful, brazen, and purely entertaining “Streets of Fire” from 1984 as the most 80s movie that ever 80s’d, “The Wraith” is a close second.
What’s particularly noteworthy is that in a decade known for excess, “The Wraith” cuts the clutter that other movies would have included, and it only serves to make it even more 80s. Take for example the violent, possessive, psychopathic villain of the story, Packard Walsh (Nick Cassavetes). Most other movies would have tried to explain his behavior by giving back story like dad was a drunk, mom left when he was five—that sort of thing. There is none of that in writer-director Mike Marvin’s script. This guy is just evil. That’s all you know and all you need to know.
Backstories aren’t the only bits trimmed away. With the exception of some scenes at a drive-in burger joint with waitresses on roller skates (the 50s were revered in the 80s) and a scene at a local dam used like a beach to swim and sunbathe, no other young people are seen in the small Arizona town where “The Wraith” takes place. Further, with the exception of hard-nosed local sheriff Loomis (Randy Quaid) and his handful of deputies, there are no adults at all. Local kid Billy Hankins (Matthew Barry) seems to manage the drive-in as well as be its one and only cook.
All of this leanness makes the plot very straightforward. We get glimpses of a flashback in which Packard and his goons burst in while Billy’s brother Jamie (Christopher Bradley) and his girlfriend Keri (Sherilyn Fenn) are making love. Jamie is cut up and stabbed to death for this indiscretion he didn’t even know he was committing. A short time later a new guy named Jake Kesey (Charlie Sheen) shows up in town and starts wooing Keri, much to the dismay of the jealous Packard. Not coincidentally, a black turbo Dodge Interceptor comes to town, driven by a mysterious man dressed in full race gear complete with helmet and tinted face shield. No points in guessing how Jamie, Jake, and the mystery man are all connected, though the movie treats it like it’s a mystery.
This sets in motion a series of street races in which anyone involved in Jamie’s death is served a lethal dose of justice in the deserts of Arizona while Loomis and his lawmen try to put a stop to it. Part of the fun in watching “The Wraith” is guessing who’s going next and when. The only answer that stays consistent is to the question of how. All the punks are killed in fiery explosions. Big ones. What “The Wraith” lacks in subtlety it makes up for in pyrotechnics. It’s a very 80s thing to do. Rent it.
Since I’ve seen way, way too many movies, there are many tropes that have grown tiresome for me. Yet there are a handful that I always love to see. The angry police captain/chief/lieutenant is one of them. It’s been around for at least 50 years, since “Dirty Harry” in 1971, and I hope it continues. It entertains me to no end to see our tough, wisecracking, hard-nosed police detective protagonist take heat from his superior for being a “loose cannon.” Special points are added for dialogue from the superior along the lines of “the mayor is on my back about what you did” or words to the affect.
While there are no lines like that in “Spiral” (darn it, I was waiting eagerly), the dynamic is there. What it lacks in awesome dialogue it makes up for with a twist that is a first for me with this trope. I don’t recall any movie before this one in which the superior officer is a woman. Captain Angie Garza (Marisol Nichols) may very well be a part of movie history as the first female superior officer to give our hero a verbal dressing down, tell him she’s sick and tired of his lone wolf nonsense, and force him to break in a rookie partner. God I love this stuff.
The hero in this case is Detective Zeke Banks, and he is played by Chris Rock. Yes—that Chris Rock. There’s always a concern that people who are known for comedy have a tough time playing straight. There’s a risk of some quirk or nuance or something they do that reminds audiences of their comedic work and prevents them from being taken seriously as a dramatic actor. This, however, is not a problem for Chris Rock. He plays it straight and angry and I bought him in the role. I am interested to see what he can do in a movie where people aren’t tortured and killed in ways that would make Marquis De Sade blush.
“Spiral” takes place in the “Saw” universe, but rather than focus on the victims and the traps, “Spiral” is a detective story. Jigsaw may be long gone, but his work lives on in the form of a copycat killer who’s targeting crooked cops. It’s up to Banks and his new partner William Schenk (Max Minghella) to get to the bottom of it. Helping out is Zeke’s father Marcus, played in a cameo role by Samuel L. Jackson. While “Spiral” may not be a funny movie, I couldn’t help by chuckle when Marcus used his son’s full name and called him Ezekiel. Only when Sam Jackson says that name do I think of “Pulp Fiction” and smile.
As expected with something that takes place in this world, the death traps are overly elaborate and involve a horrific choice for the victim. Even more elaborate—to the point of sheer contrivance—is the plot. In order for things to happen the way the copycat wants them to happen, people have to behave in certain ways and do certain things at just the right time. It’s a bit too much disbelief to suspend. Then after all is revealed in a climactic exposition dump, director Darren Lynn Bousman gives us quick cuts back to earlier in the movie to show us how the clues were there and how clever he is as a filmmaker. And sure, the way the clues are woven into the story is clever. It’s also too far-fetched, even for a “Saw” movie, which is saying something. Stream it.
Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover and author of the novel “Takedown,” which is available at https://www.pagepublishing.com/books/?book=takedown. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.