Jack Deth is back! And he’s never even been here before!
Trancers is a low-budget mash-up of a science-fiction and horror film that’s not too derivative. It featured performances by a number of familiar faces, some that would go on to greater success, and also launched a moderately successful franchise.
This trailer tells of a hard-boiled detective character in the 23rd Century called Jack Death [sic]. He hunts Trancers, which appear to be some kind of zombie-like state induced into people. This sends him back to 1985 to hunt for a criminal making these Trancers. There he meets a young woman who helps teach him about the weird things in the 20th Century, like the fact that people there still eat beef. Not only is he on the run from monsters, but also the local police. It’s a slightly cheesy looking action film with a time travel element similar to The Terminator, so let’s get jumping.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
In the 23rd Century, Angel City Trooper Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson) is winding down his hunt for the final members of Martin Whister’s murderous cult, called Trancers. Deth had “singed” (i.e. killed) Whistler on Meacon-7 and enters a diner to find some of the last zombie-like recruits that Whistler used for his dirty work. After singeing another trancer, McNulty (Art LaFleur), a superior on the force, let’s Jack know that he needs to stick to his assignments and stop hunting trancers. That’s too much for the hard-boiled trooper so he quits the force.
McNulty finds Jack the next day diving the sunken ruins of “Lost Angeles” to let him know that the Council wants to see him urgently. It appears that Whistler is not as dead as everyone thought. The High Council, Western Territories was made up of three leaders. They are now down to two. Chairman Ashe (Anne Seymour) and Chairman Spencer (Richard Herd) show Jack a hologram sent to them by Whistler, who is very much still alive. He plans to eliminate the Council by “going down the line” (slang for time travel), to kill the ancestors of the law organization. They ask Jack to help.
Jack is not eager to time travel, but he is ready to finally nab Whistler. When he realizes the Council has the catatonic body of Whistler in their possession, he destroys it so that the murderer can’t return. Jack is given a drug to make the trip and a few gadgets for the mission, and sent back to December, 1985. There he wakes up in the body of his ancestor Phil Dethton, who has just had a one-night stand with a younger woman, Leena (Helen Hunt). Jack’s mission is to find the ancestors of the Council and protect them from Whistler (Michael Stefani), now in the body of his ancestor, LAPD Detective Weisling.
Jack takes Leena to the local Mall where she works as one of Santa’s elves during the holiday season. The man playing Santa Claus, Murray (Peter Schrum), becomes a trancer and tries to kill Jack, but Jack gets him first. He and Leena flee knowing that Whistler is now on to him. They stop at a tanning salon to protect Chris Lavery (Michael McGrady), ancestor to Chairman Spencer, but they are too late. He becomes tranced and shoots himself. Whistler and some other LAPD officers show up and Jack is forced to use his only Long-Second watch to slow down time to save Leena, and escape.
They hide out in Chinatown at one of Leena’s friends’ apartments while Jack figures out how to find an ex-baseball player named Hap Ashby (Biff Manard), Chairman Ashe’s ancestor. Leena has gone from being frightened of this man, who has told her of his true mission, to becoming more attracted to him. She helps explain how things in 1985 work, impressing him with Chinese food containing actual beef. Leena even gets him a Christmas gift, a toy robot called Future Man–just like him, she jokes. They become close and begin to embrace.
Jack suddenly wakes back up in the 23rd Century, having been zapped with the antidote to the time travel drug in 1985 by McNulty in the body of a pre-teen girl (Alyson Croft). Chairman Ashe ordered Jack returned since he failed in his mission. Jack explains that he has a lead on Ashby and demands to be sent back. They agree and he returns–just after Phil has made love to Leena, again! They track the ex-baseball pitcher down on Skid Row and extract him just in time to prevent him from being captured by Whistler’s police raid.
Jack convinces the drunk Ashby that he needs to sober up and move forward with his life (he’s a fortune teller after all and knows the future). The future trooper calls Whistler to set up a deal. Jack says he’s in love with Leena and that’s all he wants. Whistler shows up and grabs Leena, throwing her off the roof. Luckily on Jack’s last trip back to the 23rd Century they provided him a replacement Long-Second watch, which allows him to save Leena. Having only one vial of antidote left, the second having broken in the fight, Jack sends Whistler back up the line where no body is waiting for him. Jack then decides to stay in 1985 with Leena and make a go of this new life.
“Last January, I finally singed Martin Whistler out on one of the rim planets. Since then, I’ve been hunting down the last of his murdering cult. We call them “Trancers,” slaves to Whistler’s psychic power. Not really alive, not dead enough. It’s July now, and I’m tired. Real tired.” – Jack Deth
History in the Making
Trancers is an interesting entry for Sci-Fi Saturdays. It was a film that I watched a lot on video when it came out, being one of the first wave of films that really took advantage of the new video rental medium. Directed by Charles Band (Laserblast, Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared Syn), Trancers was one of the first sci-fi films he produced under the banner of Empire International Pictures. The production company was founded in 1983 as a way to release Band’s slate of sci-fi, horror and fantasy B-movies, such as The Alchemist (1983) & The Dungeonmaster (1984). Trancers was one of their earliest successes along with Ghoulies, Re-Animator, Troll, and Robot Jox. After only six years, Empire International suffered from bankruptcy and Band created the more noteworthy Full Moon Entertainment which released the sequels to Trancers (all five of them), Demonic Toys, Dollman, and Doctor Mordrid (a failed attempt to bring Doctor Strange to the screen).
Much like Roger Corman before him, Band produced and directed a number of his own films, and produced the remainder that the company released. His sense for the campy, unique and out of the ordinary, created some extremely memorable films, even if they were knock-offs of bigger budgeted films. Audiences would remember seeing a Charles Band film, regardless of how low-budget it was, as they all created interesting characters and had elements that grabbed the audience. With the burgeoning video rental market, the production values on his films were just right to snare a large piece of the market. And in the pre-internet days, these films stood out as highly recommended and sought out by cult fans of genre films. Trancers also appeals to fans of other film styles as well, since it is both a film that pushes new ground as well as paying homage to a number of genres that came before it.
In short, Trancers is a neo-noir, hard boiled, sci-fi, time-travel adventure that probably owes as much to Philip Marlowe as it does to Blade Runner. The protagonist, Jack Deth, is an unlikeable future cop hunting down trancers, which are psychically possessed, zombie-like individuals. The film opens with a 1940s style voice over narration by Jack immediately reminiscent of the Harrison Ford voice-over in the original version of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. And much like Deckard in Blade Runner, Deth retires these monsters without any malice or guilt. It’s the job he’s been given and he’s happy to do it. It also blends the elements of another big sci-fi film from the previous year and a horror sequel that raised the bar for zombie films.
Trancers also embodies elements of the time-travel action film The Terminator as well as the zombie sequel, Dawn of the Dead. The hero chases the villain back in time where he plans to kill the ancestors of those who oppose him in the future. On his trip back, the hero falls in love with a woman from the 20th Century, and in this case stays in the past (rather than dying and being the father of a future revolutionary). On a lesser note, the villain is able to create thralls to his will that end up looking a bit like zombies. Dawn of the Dead may not be the most apropos film to relate this to other than there is a zombie attack in a mall. Trancers similarity to these other films is not very overt or distracting from the overall film. The viewer hopefully gets wrapped up in the story, rather than focusing on the minutiae. The aesthetic of the film is much more similar to the hardboiled detective films of the 40, such as The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep. Jack speaks in clipped voice overs, has his hair slicked back, and even wears a trenchcoat for the majority of the film.
But the biggest addition to the science-fiction genre is perhaps the unique time travel premise used by the characters in the film. Instead of a contraption that sends the characters through time as in the majority of time travel films (from The Time Machine to The Terminator), Trancers uses a drug to move the consciousness of the character into the past, occupying the body of one of their ancestors. This is not the first time something like this has been used in film. The French short film La Jetée used a meditative technique to send the protagonist’s consciousness into a past version of himself, limiting the time travel within his own lifetime. Similarly the protagonist of Somewhere in Time used a meditative technique, without drugs, that allowed him to travel into a specific moment in time which was outside his lifetime. Logistically Trancers method of time travel allows for the same actors to play both their future and past selves since they are genetic versions of the same blood line. This is true for both Jack/Phil and Whistler/Weisling, but the film allows for a little comedy with McNulty coming back to inhabit the body of a young girl (with it being unclear why neither of her parents were available for him to leap into, but it does make for a humorous moment). This idea is similar to the premise for the 1989 television series Quantum Leap, where the hero time travels into various bodies.
As with many other time travel films, Trancers deals with the theme of legacy and the choices made regarding one’s future. The legacy of the characters from 1985, especially Hap Ashby are paramount to the survival of the way of life in the 23rd Century. Without those characters, the Council and Jack Deth would not exist. It’s interesting that the 1985 ancestors of the council members were as non-descript as they were. It’s never revealed what one of the ancestors did, but the other two were the manager (or owner) of a tanning salon and a homeless, drunk, ex-baseball player. Jack is unable to save the tanning salon ancestor, but his interactions with Hap Ashby change the course of the man’s life, presumably getting him to sober up and settle down. As with films like The Terminator, the protagonist’s actions directly influence the future which he has come from, creating a causality loop, also known as circular logic. How could Ashby have sobered up and become a family man without Jack Deth coming back in time? And without Ashby getting cleaned up to pass down his genetics to Councilwoman Ashe, how would Jack Deth have been sent back to 1985? This idea of the time traveller affecting the past in small ways that influences the future has been a common trope only since the early 1980s, when people stopped travelling from the past to the future and began coming back in time to correct some problem.
Another element that was popular in time travel films by this time was the “fish out of water.” The time traveller had difficulty understanding the conventions of the time they were visiting and was usually played for laughs. Here Jack has to adjust to the weird Los Angeles of the 80s. His biggest explorations are watching television, on which he encounters reruns of a 1960s detective show called Peter Gunn. He asks Leena what kind of name that is, and she retorts, “what kind of name is Jack Deth?” He also is surprised that L.A. has beef available, obviously something missing in the 23rd Century. They also are missing coffee and real milk, having substituted it with a soy product instead. This lack of familiarity with the present time necessitates the character attach themselves to a local to help orient them. In this case, it’s also the love interest in Leena, which is a standard plot point.
Trancers doesn’t try to be more than the low budget film it is. At only 75 minutes, it’s one of the shortest films reviewed here since the 1950s. For a low budget film of this kind that’s an appropriate length, but Trancers avoids some of the other pitfalls of low-budget filmmaking. It doesn’t try to show you every piece of scenery that was created, or use lots of screen time to over-explain the technology. Both of these are hallmarks of a bad, low-budget film, since the creators are trying to squeeze every drop out of their budget and put it onto the screen. While Trancers does use lots of long takes, and limited editing, they aren’t too distracting. The pacing of the film doesn’t seem to suffer for it either. It might have been nice to get a little more information on Hap Ashby or see Whistler working on his plans, but overall the film is super economical on developing Jack Deth and moving the plot forward.
The Science in The Fiction
Another unique element of this particular time travel film is the creation of the long second watch. Since Jack doesn’t have access to a time machine as many other heroes might have, they create a one use device that allows him to stretch one second out to 10 (or longer, as the scenes make it seem like he’s using up way more time than that). His use of the device is at the first moment when it seems appropriate–when he’s about to be gunned down by the trigger-happy LAPD. But instead of tagging Whistler at that moment, and sending him back up the line, Jack chooses to save Leena instead. Jack hasn’t realized it at that moment, and makes excuses about it later, but he has already fallen for Leena as she reminds him of his dead wife (a thread that will be explored more in the first sequel). The use of the watch early on, and the reminder that it is a one-use device creates a little tension in the film. But later Jack is given another watch, so it is easily assumed that he’ll need it at the finale–which he again uses to save Leena. The one question that this technology begs is that the weapons get sent down the line separately from the people. If there’s a process for sending a gun and a long second watch in a case, why can’t they send more? Or why can’t they send the people wholly, without the need for the existence of an ancestor? It’s probably more economical to just move the consciousness and the small case of items is certainly smaller than a person, so there are probably reasons.
The Final Frontier
This was a breakthrough role for Tim Thomerson, who was playing against character in this role. His background was comedy, having appeared in television series such as the Star Trek spoof Quark and sitcoms like Angie and The Two Of Us. His role as the tough, craggy, detective changed his career. His ability to deliver these crazy lines coupled with his body language led to a new series of roles in a number of Charles Band films. Besides Jack Deth, who he played in five of the six Trancers films, he was also known for his role in Dollman, about Brick Bardo, a 13-inch space cop. He also had numerous supporting roles in films including Air America, Volunteers, Iron Eagle, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Perhaps the biggest star to emerge from this film is Helen Hunt, who had her start as a young girl in television series’ such as The Bionic Woman and Ark II. Trancers was only her second film after the 1977 disaster picture Rollercoaster. She is probably best known for her role opposite Paul Reiser on Mad About You from 1992-1999, and her Academy Award winning role opposite Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets. The rest of the cast was made up of a number of character actors that were known for their television work, including Telma Hopkins, once part of Tony Orlando’s backup act–Dawn, and later known for her role in Bosom Buddies, Art LaFleur, who often played tough guys, Richard Herd, who played the leader of the Visitors on V: The Miniseries, and Biff Manard, who played Officer Murphy on the 1990s series The Flash.
The film also spawned five sequels, which Band produced via his Full Moon Entertainment company. Four of those starred Tim Thomerson, with Helen Hunt returning for the second one only. The final sequel, Trancers 6 featured Jack Deth leaping into the body of his daughter Josephine (Zette Sullivan) and included footage of Thomerson from previous appearances only. As with many low-budget and direct-to-video franchises from the 80s and 90s Trancers quality declined rapidly with each successive attempt. However the original film still manages to capture a fresh and interesting take on time travel while mashing it up with the hard-boiled detective genre. It may have been the most interesting time travel film of 1985…if it weren’t for next week’s entry, Back to the Future.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.