Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Film Appreciation - A Charles Band Christmas

Cody Hamman celebrates the holiday by showing Film Appreciation for the 1985 sci-fi actioner Trancers.

There have been a lot of action heroes with the first name Jack, Tom Cruise is kicking ass on the big screen right now as Jack Reacher, but the hero in Trancers may have the most badass last name of all the Jacks. The name is Jack Deth.

Jack Deth is a cop working out of Angel City in the neon-infused future of 2247, which is why this film was also released under the title Future Cop in some countries. For twelve years, Trooper Deth has been tracking down the trancers, weak-minded people turned into zombie-like beings, "not really alive, not dead enough", by the psychic powers of cult leader Martin Whistler. They can appear to be everyday normal people at one moment, then trance out and viciously attack the next. This is proven to us by the fact that the first trancer Deth encounters in the film is a kindly old woman working in the diner he stops by to get a cup of coffee ("The real stuff? That's gonna cost you.") When Deth finds a trancer, he "singes" them, hitting them with a laserblast from his service pistol, after which the ghoul evaporates, leaving a body-shaped scorch mark on the ground.

Deth is obsessed with the eradication of trancers, to the point that he neglects all other duties, ignoring assignments. When he's told to knock off the trancer hunt, he hands over his badge instead. This mission is a personal one. A trancer killed his wife. Deth believes that he's already singed Martin Whistler, now he's just mopping up the strays.

Deth is wrong about Whistler, as he discovers when he's called in for a meeting with the High Council of the Western Territories. Whistler did not perish in the trap Deth set for him on one of the rim planets, he returned to Angel City... and has now gone almost 300 years back in time, "down the line" as the characters call it. There, Whistler is targeting the ancestors of the High Council members in Los Angeles (a city that The Great Quake has made a flooded ruin referred to as Lost Angeles by 2247), planning to take out his enemies by wiping them from existence. Deth is the council's only hope. He has to follow Whistler back in time to 1985 and stop him.

Trancers has its own unique form of time travel. A person doesn't just get inside a machine and zap themselves to a different date, instead they get an injection in the neck that sends their consciousness back into the body of an ancestor, leaving their own body in a coma-like state. To get their consciousness back to their own body and present, they inject themselves with another vial of liquid.

In 1985, Deth's consciousness arrives in the body of his ancestor Phillip Deth, a journalist who looks just like Jack except for lighter hair color and the lack of a facial scar. Jack gives Phil a bit of a makeover, donning a trenchcoat and slicking back his hair, because "Dry hair's for squids." Aiding Deth on his mission to stop Whistler - who's in the body of a police detective ancestor, so he has the LAPD on his side - is the girl Phil met the night before Jack took over his body, a punk rock chick named Leena.

It's in '85 L.A. that this becomes a Christmas movie, as 'tis the season when Jack Deth arrives. Leena works as a helper elf for a mall Santa, and there's "trouble at the North Pole" when Deth comes around and Santa trances out. In a nightclub scene, we're treated to a punk rendition of "Jingle Bells".

With Trancers, producer/director Charles Band delivered one of his best films, a great cult movie with an interesting story, nice and simple, and so enjoyable to watch play out over its 76 minute running time that any lapses in logic are easy to overlook. Jack Deth is an awesome hero, inspired by the style of hard-boiled film noir detectives but dwelling within a sci-fi world, and he's brought to life perfectly by comedian/character actor Tim Thomerson.

Thomerson is paired up with Helen Hunt as Leena, who does a fine job in the role even though she doesn't really come across as the punk rocker she's supposed to be. Art LaFleur plays a fellow trooper named McNulty in 2247, and the character is even more entertaining when he visits Deth in 1985, his consciousness taking over an ancestor who happens to be a 10 year old girl, allowing angelic little Alyson Croft to act like a tough guy cop. Biff Manard is also fun as Hap Ashby, ancestor of one of the council members and a former pro baseball player turned alcoholic homeless man. Michael Srefani takes the villainous role of Whistler.

The film's writers, Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, went on to work on the James Bond video games Agent Under Fire, Nightfire, Everything or Nothing, and GoldenEye: Rogue Agent, and it's made apparent in this film that they're fans of the 007 world when a character played by Telma Hopkins equips Deth with weapons and gadgets before his mission (the objects are sent back in time after him in a small box), much like Bond's Q. Among Deth's gadgets is "the long second watch".

The long second watch is one of those aforementioned things that makes no logical sense, and yet you just go with it. With the press of a button, the watch allows Deth to live ten seconds within what is only one second for the rest of the world. The world around him slows down, people almost seem to freeze in place, but Deth is still able to move around. Deth puts it to use after a gun has been fired at him and Leena. With the world slowed down, Deth can see the bullet passing through the air. Trancers features "bullet time" long before The Matrix did it.

I love the synth theme music by composers Phil Davies and Mark Ryder. I find the tone of it to be a bit depressing, but I'm easily depressed anyway. The film was edited by original Texas Chainsaw Massacre crew member turned Band regular Ted Nicolaou. Handling the cinematography was Mac Ahlberg, who passed away this past October at the age of 81. His age matched the number of cinematography credits on his filmography, a list that includes some great movies - Hell Night, Ghoulies, Re-Animator, House and House II, From Beyond, Dolls, and Robot Jox, among many others. Trancers ranks up there among the best.

Charles Band knew he had a good thing going with this concept and the character of Jack Deth, and he's never had an aversion to sequels, so Trancers became a series of films. I was aware of the series during my childhood, I would see the movies in the listings for cable channels and all franchises piqued my interest back then, but I never did get around to watching them. I did catch the ending of Trancers III one night and liked what I saw, but I hadn't seen a full Trancers when I listened to Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's commentary for their movie From Dusk Till Dawn sometime in the late '90s. In that commentary, they made reference to the long second watch and seemed to think positively of Trancers. That's what spurred me on to finally checking the series out. Part 3 had looked cool, Rodriguez and Tarantino endorsed part 1, it was time to do this. The next time I saw a copy of Trancers for sale in a store, I asked my mom to buy it for me. Now that I think of it, I might have even received the movie as a Christmas gift that year... Very appropriate if so. Whenever it was, I've been a fan ever since.


  1. Fantastic look back at a truly fun B movie - thanks for posting about it! I first saw Trancers on VHS as a rental at college - and thoroughly enjoyed it. It actually cemented my affection for Charles Band's movies - and here's links to my two part series on the man and his movies:




  2. In the 5 dollar bin at Walmart I found a 2 disk set of action films and the first Trancers was one of them. The other films are Equilibrium, Imposter the Prophecy, Total Recall 2070, Fortress, Cypher and Convict. For $5 it was worth it just to get Trancers. Now if I can find Al Pyuns Nemesis.