Full Moon Features and its predecessor Empire Pictures are production companies led by one of the kings of B-movies, Charles Band. They are known for making campy, low budget features, mostly in the horror, sci-fi, and fantasy genres. Band and Full Moon has been a major player in the B-movie industry for a few decades now, but are mostly known for the Puppet Master series and 80s Stuart Gordon films like Re-Animator and From Beyond. As a huge fan of these types of films, I will be dedicating this column to watching and discussing any gems I come across in the Full Moon/Empire catalogues. If you are a fan of b-movie schlock oozing with fun and heart, like myself, do yourself a favor and give anything with Band’s name on it a chance to entertain you. This week we look at a relatively unknown gem from Empire Pictures called Trancers.
Trancers is the first in a series that spans 6 movies and one short feature (I’m sure they are all of varying quality, but I’ll be watching every damn one of them). It’s even directed by Mr. Full Moon himself, Charles Band! It’s pretty much a mix of Blade Runner and The Terminator, with a little Timecop thrown in for good measure, and I mean that in the best way possible. The basics of the plot revolve around future cop Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson, also from the Full Moon Features film Dollman), who is trying to kill a baddie named Whistler in a future devastated by an epic earthquake. The design of the future city in the opening of the movie and sprinkled throughout is actually pretty impressive to look at, despite the obvious budget constraints. The opening is especially “influenced” by Blade Runner (Trancers was released in 1985, Blade Runner in 1982), complete with a noir-esque voiceover from our rugged hero, a futuristic car (designed by Gene Winfield who also designed the Spinner from Blade Runner), and a dirty dystopian Los Angeles of the future.
I was afraid Trancers might just be a Blade Runner rip off, but the café scene a few minutes into the movie showed me it was going to be more. Deth shakes down a patron that is acting odd. You can feel an action scene coming on and this guy seems like bad news (given that it’s just him and a tired waitress in the café). An unexpected transformation scene with some grotesque make-up effects turns the little old waitress into some kind of monster with super strength! Then we get to see our hero beat the shit out of an old lady…it’s pretty awesome. This is where we discover that Whistler essentially has an endless army at his disposal, using mind control to prey on the weak willed and turn them into violent drones that do his bidding, the titular “Trancers”. It’s Deth’s job to hunt down and kill these Trancers, and he’s the best there is. He is your basic rogue, wild card, piss on the book kind of hero and Tim Thomerson is really entertaining in the role. Michael Stefani as Whistler is wide eyed, creepy, and oddly sexual. He is perfectly acceptable as the villain and a nice foil to Thomerson’s slick, one-liner spewing action hero.
All of this is enough to base a sci-fi action movie on, but Band and crew decide to go in a different (and cheaper) direction by tossing time travel into the mix. There is a council of elders running the L.A. of the future that discover Whistler has traveled back in time to kill their ancestors to take control from them in the future. The time travel mechanic is a bit different than usual. In this film traveling back in time involves sending just your consciousness back to take over the body of an ancestor while your empty shell of a body stays in the present. It’s a nifty idea, but it causes an endless amount of plot holes throughout the movie. However, in a movie like this, you’re not too concerned with accuracy or continuity. It’s pretty easy to let most of it slide and just enjoy the show.
There are only two things that really bother me. Although people can only travel back via taking over an ancestor’s consciousness (and apparently have no idea where they will end up), the scientists are able to send physical objects back to wherever you may be at the time. It’s pretty vague and confusing, to say the least. The other thing is that the last ancestor Deth has to protect in the 3rd act is an ex-baseball player who has become a homeless drunk. This guy is easily in his late 30s-early 40s, yet we are to believe that at some point he will clean up his act enough to get a wife and child (or at least the child part). This is extremely unlikely, as he seems completely content, or at least uncaring of his situation. Unless, of course, the elder in the future just comes from a long line of hobo babies…which makes me giggle to no end. Well, whatever is most convenient for the plot, I always say!
So we travel back to 1985, where Deth, now in the body of an identical ancestor (he-he), must save the council’s ancestors and give Whistler an antidote to send him to the future (or more like oblivion, given that Deth destroyed Whistler’s body in the future, like the badass he is). This is where we meet a very young Helen Hunt in one of her first film roles, as Leena, love interest and sidekick to Deth. Hunt is really beautiful and charming; it’s pretty easy to see why she went on to bigger things, given that she gives her all to elevate even silly material like this. She does a good job in grounding the movie amongst all the time travel and deliciously hammy acting the rest of the cast gets to deliver. It even makes her attraction to, and dependence on, the much older Deth believable. The movie becomes more of a fish out of water story and gains a pretty well balanced tone of action and comedy once we’re in the past. I particularly love the punk club sequence, where we get to see Deth awkwardly dancing to a punk band (The Buttheads…yeah, I don’t know them either) and even kick a guy’s ass for bothering Leena, all while listening to a police radio monitor! The film moves at a pretty rapid and entertaining pace, even if it is pretty standard action fare at this point. The characters jump from set to set, they get in, then out of trouble, and build to the final standoff…which ends like any of us could expect.
This was a pretty solid film for Empire Pictures and I can see why Band decided to turn it into a franchise after he started Full Moon. Overall, I really dig this movie. It embraces the over the top nature of the material and plays it with tongue firmly in cheek. The performances are pretty good overall given the story and dialogue is a bit of a mess. There are some inspired ideas at play, even if they sometimes make no sense other than plot convenience. I like the idea of the watch that slows down a single second to the equivalent of a few minutes, allowing the wearer to move normally in that time. The long second watch is badass, but it would have been a pretty short movie if Deth used it properly (he could have saved Leena AND taken out Whistler if he really tried!). The film’s lingo is also pretty spiffy. I particularly like referring to the type of weak minded people Whistler can control as “Squids” (and we now know that dry hair is for squids, thanks to Mr. Deth). The direction is pretty average throughout, but tends to shine in any Trancer or future scenes.
My only real gripe about the movie is the lack of scenes involving the future dystopia the film started in. Those are the most interesting parts and also contain some pretty great set design and visuals. Who knows, maybe I’ll get some more of that in the sequels. That’s right; I will be back with Trancers II: The Return of Jack Deth (co-starring one of my big 90s crushes, Megan Ward of PCU and Encino Man fame), as soon as I get around to watching it. Oh, and just a side note, Jack Deth is ostensibly totally fine with banging his grandmother and being his own grandfather…just farther down the blood line. Now, that’s my kind of hero! See you next time, my lovelies…