Tagline: Jack Deth is back…and he’s never been here before!
Director: Charles Band
Writers: Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo
Starring: Tim Thomerson, Helen Hunt, Michael Stefani, Art Lafleur, Richard Herd, Anne Seymour, Telma Hopkins, Anne Seymour
PG | 1hr 16 min | Action, Sci-fi
Budget: $400,000 (estimated)
In the same year rookie director James Cameron took the box office by storm with iconic character The Terminator, another sci-fi legend was born.
The brainchild of direct-to-video maestro Charles Band, Trancers didn’t do well at the box office, or even make it there for that matter, but in spite of its financial shortcomings it is truly one of the great B-movies, and not because it fails so spectacularly. The film is a low-budget wonder, a charmingly cheap sci-fi caper with a cool, dry wit to match any of its high-rolling counterparts. The bastard child of a plethora of modern mainstream concepts, it is sparse, sagacious, and has a neon-pulp appeal somewhere between Blade Runner and Dick Tracey.
Much of the movie’s charm is derived from its leading man, Tim Thomerson, the Kurt Russel of low-grade productions. Here he plays Jack Deth, a sneering Humphrey Bogart clone who has little time for authority and even less for the criminals who eat up his days. Following the death of his wife at the hands of the notorious Trancers, Deth has grown tired of being up to his neck in scum, and after dumping his badge he takes to the Pacific Ocean where he scuba dives for scrap mementos buried in the wake of the great California quake.
For a guy like Deth, retirement is little more than an empty threat, and after learning that nemesis Whistler (Stefani) is alive and well and plotting to murder members of the High Council, he is soon coaxed into returning to the fray. The problem is, Whistler is no longer in 23rd century Angel City. He has slipped ‘down the line’ to 20th century Los Angeles where he inhabits the body of Detective Lieutenant Weisling as he attempts to hunt down the ancestors of his targets and eliminate them by association.
One of the three council members has already been ‘vapourised’ in this way. Of course, if that had happened he never would have been a Council member in the first place, and perhaps no Council would ever have existed, but as soon as you begin to contemplate such matters the movie’s whole world falls apart.
Deth agrees to pursue Whistler by inhabiting the body of his own ancestor, a sleazy, sweet-talking photographer with a penchant for bedding his many subjects. His latest conquest is Leena, a spirited young filly played by a gloriously nubile Helen Hunt, who after awakening in his apartment is immediately struck by the sudden change in her would-be one night stand, particularly when he puts on a trademark overcoat and rubs grease through his preppy haircut proclaiming that ‘Dry hair is for squids.’
Things get even stranger for Leena when a department store Santa turns into a zombie and tries to kill our hero. Jack takes this in his stride however, and in need of an escort with knowledge of 20th century Los Angeles he decides to let the little bird in on his secret; the man he killed was not a man at all, he was in fact a Trancer. Trancers are potentially everywhere; anyone with a weak enough mind for Whistler to get his hypnotic claws into. Unluckily for them, that turns out to be the entire Los Angeles police department, and the odds are quickly stacked against them.
Trancers was a released just as cult distributor Empire Pictures began to turn a profit, their first box office success, Ghoulies, arriving a year later, paving the way for such cheapskate classics as Eliminators, Terrorvision and Troll. Unfortunately their mainstream tenure was short-lived with the company declaring bankruptcy in 1988 due to outstanding debts accumulated through the company’s quite phenomenal production output.
Still, Trancers lived on for an incredible five sequels, Tim Thomerson spanning three decades as the irrepressible Jack Deth, returning under Band’s new distribution company Full Moon Pictures, which would quickly become synonymous with the inexhaustible Puppet Master series. Band has given us more than three decades of killer dolls, dollmen, and all kinds of cheapo delights for the B-movie connoisseur to feast upon, and I for one would like to thank him.
Best Sci-fi Gimmick
Confronted by the maniacal pseudo-Whistler and a pack of LAPD cronies, Deth and Leena appear done for as the cops open fire. Luckily for them, Jack is armed with a crappy Casio wristwatch which has the rather convenient feature of slowing down time, allowing him a ‘long second’ which he uses to escape as the bullets fly past them ‘Matrix’ style.
Most Absurd Moment
Jack’s 23rd Century superior, McNulty, leaps into the body of the closest ancestor he can find in ’80’s Los Angeles – an 8-year-old girl – giving his subordinate a ‘Dirty Harry’ tongue-lashing in a pair of cute pyjamas. After being carried out of Leena’s apartment kicking and screaming, he then takes great delight in zapping Jack back to the future mid-coitus, allowing ancestor Bob all the fun in his absence.
Most Absurd Dialogue
After tracking down one of the council members’ forefathers – a former baseball player named Hap who has become a lazy, down-and-out bum – Jack grabs him by the collar and offers some straight-shooting advice in a way that only he can.
Hap: I’m just a bum, man!
Jack: You are now, hophead, but I’m your fortune teller. You’re gonna dry out, get a job, meet a girl, and have a kid. And his descendent’s gonna be one of the greatest leaders of the 23rd century.
As a slice of low-budget chicanery Trancers is a minor masterpiece of subtle parody and sparse ingenuity. A movie that is too good to be considered bad, and too unoriginal to be considered anything more than B-movie schlock, it still ranks up there with the very best in its field, and as cult figure Jack Deth, Thomerson is a slick as they come.