There are bad movies out there. There are some truly awful pieces of celluloid in existence. The fact that these things keep getting produced shows that someone, somewhere, is watching them. Paul ‘Logan Blaze’ Anderson is one such person, who tends to find something ANYTHING of merit in some of the most despised pieces of film history. Except Picnic at Hanging Rock. Never bring up Picnic at Hanging Rock. Join Logan as he tries to convince you that a questionable film deserves some attention. Yes, Logan Blaze is…
The Bad Movie Apologist
Hold on to your hat’s kiddies – get ready as a 1940’s hardboiled copy…from the future (still with me?) travels back in time to chase a murderer. Wait – it gets better. The cop has to go into the body of his ancestor and the murderer turns his victims into zombies. Just how many mushrooms did the writers of Trancers take? The answer is – of course – just the right amount. The result is the Charles Band (for it is he) 1984 epic which introduces the world to the manliness that is Jack Deth.
Before the Matrix and its leather attire flew around the screen, before the Highlander drew his sword from his, one man showed you just how best to rock the trench coat – Jack Deth. During my teens and for most of my 20’s I owed much of my dress sense to this Future Cop (the films alternate title). However, it is true that the slick haired Deth was not the first to carry of the look, with the private detectives
The noir feel continues with a first-person voice-over, as Jack Deth introduces himself as a Trancer hunter. Trancers are a cult of zombie-like people controlled by through the mental powers of Whistler. Except Deth claims Whistler has been killed and he is now mopping up the last Trancers. It takes a brave film to effectively start mid-way towards the end of a story….
From here we go into the diner, which could have come straight from the any 40’s classic Americana. A jovial cook is serving a burly customer when we have the arrival of Deth – Jack Deth – played by Tim Thomerson, in person. With scowl and cigarette in mouth he saunters over the customer, flashes his badge and demands he submit to a Trancer test.
That’s when the customer cries out in alarm, as the cook dives at Deth with a huge knife. The cook has gone through some obvious cosmetic changes. She is now paler, wild eyed and frothing at the mouth. Basically the same look you get from a hardcore WoW player as they wait for the latest update. This is our first Trancer.
After a scuffle with this virtual zombie, Deth gets the upper hand and gets the chance to shoot her. The laser gun turns her to literal ashes. We learn later this is not the result of using the weapon, but the regular way Trancers die. It’s a simple SFX and like many of the elements of Trancers allows a simple and cheap effect to generate a interesting and effective plot point. When it comes to killing Trancers, you don’t have to worry about piling up the corpses.
Skip forward to the final beach scene from Planet of the Apes – seriously, while there is no Statue of Liberty, the ruined LA skyline is very prominent. From the sea comes Deth in scuba gear to be greeted by McNulty and an armed guard with a summons from the Council. Despite this obviously being a big deal, his initial response is ‘Fuck em’ which nearly gets him shot. It is only when Whistler is stated to be alive that he agrees to the summons.
The three-person council has a notable missing member, with an empty seat. It is explained that Whistler has ‘gone down the line’, time travelled to the 80’s, and murdered the ancestor of one of the Council. This wiped them from existence, but there is no mention of paradox here. How do people still remember someone who never existed? The whole Trancers franchise really plays fast and loose with temporal physics, but no one really cares.
Deth agrees to chase Whistler back in time to stop him killing any more of the Council’s ancestors and we are treated to one of the most unique forms of time travel. It is essentially chemically induced astral projection. The traveller takes a drug and their consciousness travels back in time and inhabits the body of an ancestor.
This is explained to Deth as he finds that the Police know Whistlers plans as they have recovered his body, which now lies in front of Deth. Before anyone can react, Deth whips out a gun and incinerates the prone body of Whistler. Now, if he is sent back up the line there will be no body for him. Deth just needs to find him.
This is about ten minutes into the film. They do not mess about with this story and the science bits are no less brief but effective. Time travel is instantaneous, as soon as the injection is taken, Deth cuts from his body to a less scared, more coiffured version of himself shaving in front of a mirror.
The effect on the film is also instant. From the dark, noir-but-neon future we come into the bright, almost hopeful past…well…present for us. At the time. It is the past now as it is the 80’s.
Time travel hurts my head. The tenses’ alone are migraine inducing.
Deth has jumped into the body of his ancestor, Phil Dethlon, a journalist. He has also leapt into an awkward ‘morning after the night before’. In a scene which really underlines the differences between the dark future and the bright past, we see a wide window in Phil’s studio apartment, showing a sunny LA morning.
Yes THAT Helen Hunt. You all have to start somewhere.
Oh did I mention that Leena, the punk with a pink streak in her hair, was dressing as a sexy Christmas elf? No? Sorry I got distracted. This is Helen Hunt after all.
You see, Trancers is actually a Christmas story. In the sunny city of LA, people are preparing for the festive season, with Leena one of Santa’s Little Helpers at the local mall. The problem is that as Deth drops Leena off at work, with her basically running away from him, it becomes clear that Santa is not a well chappy. With a growl he reveals himself as a Trancer and Deth begins fighting Santa, finally shooting him in front of all the kids.
Happy Christmas children.
Deth drags the distraught Leena away in the resulting chaos, explaining the wholes story. Needless to say, Leena is sceptical, but she still leads him to the first ancestor. A bright blue-eyed young man running a tanning salon.
At this point we briefly go back to the mall. No, we are not greeted by Jay and Silent Bob, but the police dealing with the crime scene. As Santa’s body disintegrates, it is watched by a detective that is plainly not shocked by events. Detective Weisling – very evidently the temporally relocated Whistler – now knows Deth is here.
He may not be around long though as back at the tanning salon, while Leena waits outside, Deth is knocked unconscious by the ancestor who has already been Tranced. Deth is really doing well with his assignment.
As Deth wakes up in a rapidly heating up tanning booth, looking like he may end up extra crispy in a few moments, he is freed by Leena. The Tranced ancestor is dead and Deth REALLY needs a shower.
Deth and Leena hide out in Chinatown, giving them a chance to get…close. As well as giving them a chance to have some Chinese, the pair take the opportunity to go dancing. Their hideout is just above a party, distrusting Deth and – as Leena argues – it is Christmas so might as well celebrate. This leads to Deth and Leena moshing in a punk Christmas party. It is an odd state of affairs and Deth only really seems to enjoy himself when he has to defend both his and Leena’s ‘honour’ and he easily takes down a trio of punkers.
In the age-old tradition, such a show of masculinity enamours Leena to Deth more, and the pair retire to their flat. However, Deth gets a very chatty contraceptive in the shape of McNulty. Deth’s old boss has come back down the line. Unfortunately for McNulty, the only ancestor available to him was a small girl, who turns up on Deth’s doorstep in her PJ’s with bad news from the Council. With another member now erased from existence, the remaining Council person is understandably panicky, wanting Deth back to explain himself. Jack though is being led by his little brain and kicks McNulty out, literally carrying her to the door. McNulty gets his/her revenge though as just as Deth gets back down to….business…he/she sneaks in and doses Deth with the time travel drug.
Plot wise, this could be considered a bit of a pause, providing little real advancement. However, this is not the case. For one, it provides the introduction of McNulty in the past. It also gives a further view of the future and allows the characters up the line to breath a little more. Without it, you might not care if the final Council member lives or not. Meanwhile, it gives the opportunity for Deth to reload on his future tech, necessary for the final act. Deth needs a recharge of his long-second watch, and a trip back up the line provides him the opportunity to request it.
Finally, the trip also provides some comedy. Deth and Leena were about to have sex when he goes up the line. When he returns, it seems his ancestor has had all the fun, with a very content Leena now dozing off.
The lovely couple do not snuggle long though. A TV news item shows that Whistler is looking in Skid Row for something…or someone among the transient community. Deth figures that the final ancestor - an ex baseball star called Hap Ashby – is in Skid Row. The pair race to find him, splitting up briefly.
Deth finds Ashby, now a drunk, among the decaying buildings of Skid Row (no not the 80’s cock rock band, though that would have been EPIC). However, he is only just ahead of Whistler, as it becomes clear the zombie lord has been Trancing the police under his command, forcing Deth to kill one and run with Ashby from the rest.
What follows is one of the less traditional chase scenes, but one which fits the film. Deth races out of Skid Row on a scooter, Ashby on the back, winding down narrow streets but also down steps. A similar act was done by Jason Bourne in a Mini decades later. I think Deth does it with more style here.
Deth then sets up a fake exchange with Whistler, claiming he will hand over Hap in exchange for leaving Leena and him to live out their lives in the past…the present…the whatever. Deth knows he will be double crossed and intends to cross Whistler beforehand. Setting up the exchange in Chinatown, he uses Hap to distract Whistler but the sneaky Whistler gets his hands on Leena.
Here we get a nice little twist on the Grandfather Paradox as Whistler reveals Leena is an ancestor of Jack’s so if she dies so does Jack. To do this he pushes her off a roof.
Wasn’t it convenient that Jack went back up the line to get a recharge on the long second watch?
He uses it to save Leena and wounds Whistler, but in the scuffle Deth finds that the one of the time travel vials is broken; only he or Whistler can go back home. It’s not really a surprise what happens next right?
Jack sends Whistler back up the line with no body to return to and accepts his place with his new lover in the past….present…I give up. However, after the couple kiss, the final shot is of the small girl version of McNulty, giving the message that the future has not finished with Jack yet.
For me, the negatives for this film are thin on the ground. In most cases, the weaknesses can be explained by the time it was made or the budget it had to hand. However, even that was often made to work for the film’s aesthetics or plot.
However, if there is a weak link, it is in the acting. Specifically the acting of the main antagonist, Whistler. Michael Stefani is not a bad actor, but looking at IMDB Trancers was his last film and the only one where he had a main role it seems, although he had been acting since the 60’s. The problem is that they way Whistler is played does not really fit the character as described or expected.
From the opening monologue and throughout, whenever Whistler is mentioned it is as a charismatic cult leader, hyper intelligent, egotistical and maniacal. None of this really comes over. I think I get what Stefani or the director was aiming for. Whistler’s special powers are based on his ability to mentally dominate another individual and his delivery comes across as similar to another character who can mesmerise – Count Dracula – specifically as played by Bella Lugosi. Indeed, you can also see another Lugosi character - the villain he played in White Zombie, who controlled the titular undead creatures.
The problem is, that delivery does not work with the rest of the film. Everything larger than life in this film, running at a fast pace, except Whistler. Worse, it is not camped up as strongly as Lugosi plays it. What we get is a quietly spoken villain who does not deliver his lines with menace, but with a whisper. His zombie Trancers exhibit more life and character than he does.
Back when I was doing my film class we discussed a genre called Tech Noir, named after the club at the start of Terminator. Tech noir combines elements of film noir with science fiction. I brought Trancers up as an example of this and my tutor agreed it was the perfect example of this. As well as being a perfect fusion of the two genres, it does nto feel forced. You never really ask why the future has reverted to echo elements of 1940’s America, it just seems to fit the tone. Meanwhile, it helps the acceptance of Deth as a detective in the past. He does not come across as some technological wonder dealing with a primitive past. You do not get bogged down with the usual time-travel clichés of a man dealing with the oddities of a different time. Instead you get a story of man who does not care where or when he is – he has a mission, one driven mostly by obsession and vengeance. As the film goes on, that mission is achieved, but far from being lost - as he was in the future when he thought Whistler was dead – in the past he has found a home.
Jack Deth is a little like Doc Brown with a body count.
As you sit down to watch a time-travel film which defies expectations, you are also treated to some of the most naturalistic and earnest actors in low-budget films. Most of the actors seem to fit into the roles. They also pitch their characters at the level required. Helen Hunt is perfect, going from a potential throwaway character at the state – shallow, somewhat uninteresting – to a tough love interest over the course of the film. She is no wilting flower and while she requires the odd rescue, it is not because she is weak or in reflection of her sex. She is in danger as she is out of her depth at times and the perils would befuddle most people – just not Jack Deth of course.
Even the bit players pull out of their A-game. Santa Claus is the perfect jovial mall Father Christmas but then turns with a growl into a homicidal killer. The voice and the way he holds himself changes subtly but effectively. Meanwhile we have the Council Guard on the beach at the start of the film. He hands Deth the summons and has a lovely hesitant moment when he refuses it. There is shock, there is uncertainty. He even levels his weapon a little in reflection of the disrespect and possible illegal act in refusing the summons. It is again subtle but effective.
However, of course, the main attraction among the cast is Tim Thomerson as Jack Deth. He plays the wise cracking, cynical, obsessed cop to perfection. Like the film itself, he rides that fine line between hardboiled detective and futuristic law keeper at it works so well. I had never watched Thomerson before this so I knew nothing of his history. To me he was a tough anti-hero in the same vein as Han Solo. Except Thomerson was primarily a comedian at this time, both in standup and on TV shows. There is very little humour in Deth though, beyond the fight at the Christmas party. However, what you do get is a man with a great ear for delivery, for conversation and above all timing.
The script is a big help of course. Thomerson has to deliver lines which skirts awful nori cliché but it is tempered by very naturalistic conversations at times. Meanwhile, the plot itself works for the budget, rather than underline the cheapness of the film. There are very few points where we are taken out of the film as we are forced to accept a bad effect or the logic leaps are too large. The Trancers naturally vaporise when they die, which adds to their oddness, but also deals with any problems with Deth leaving dead bodies around LA. The long-second watch, as mentioned, is possibly the only very visible effect, with the slow bullets, but it is still played well, and you are more focused on the emotional playing over Deth’s face and the quandary he is in. The use of a time travel drug is also good on the budget, but is also a non-standard way pf dealing with the idea of time travel. In all of these things, it is underlined that this is NOT an effects theme, but a character film with a science fiction theme. Every use of tech and the way it is portrayed enhances character development or the plot. It’s really quite clever.
But what about Phil?
Before I give my final scores, I do want to address one disturbing element of Trancers throughout the entire 6 film series. What about Phil Dethlon? Where is Phil? When Jack enters his body, where does Phil go? Unless I missed something in my MANY viewings of the films, this is never really answered. It never really explains WHAT is transferred over time – the soul? Pure electrical based consciousness? In whatever case, does the ancestor’s personality remain in someway or does it get held somewhere? We know that it remains close, as when Deth is sent back up the line mid jiggy jiggy Phil takes over – and does a good job based on Lenna’s reactions.
If the Phil personality stays, remains sleeping or dormant, can the time traveller access any of the old body’s memories? It is not their brain after all, it is just the personality or whatever driving the new flesh. This does not appear to be the case. There is also no hint that the personalities communicate, so we have to assume that while the time traveller is in residence, the old home owner is either walled up in a dark corner of the house, or has been evicted. The problem is then is you consider the implications of Jack staying in the past at the end of the film.
Jack has effectively killed Phil. Nothing of him appears to be active. This is all Jack, just wearing a slightly different face. It gets worse when you consider Jack NEVER travels back up the line via the drug (unless he does in the one film I have NOT seen – Trancers 1.5). Deth uses more traditional time-travel machines in later films and it is shown Deth’s real body has calcified. It is now dead flesh and he could not return if he wanted to. Jack Deth IS dead, but everything which was him has taken over Phil, so Phil is dead.
But wait – it gets worse. Whistler reveals that Leena will give birth to an ancestor of Deths. In the original timeline, she and Phil got together and had a child. Now the physical body of Phil is still with Leena, but it is being driven by Deth. The implication is that Deth HAS to father a child with Leena in order not to create a paradox where he is not born. Except, it is never shown that he and Leena have a baby together. Indeed, by film 3 they are getting divorced and this was the last time that Helen Hunt appears in the series.
A daughter does emerge in Trancers 6 – more on this in a second – but I do not think they fully explain who the mother is. It COULD be Leena, with her and Deth reconciling at some point between films. However, this is unlikely as after 3, Deth is mostly operating out of the future. Deth DOES father a child in Trancers 5 though, but this is through a relationship with Lyra, a woman from another dimension accessible only through very unique circumstances. As such, it is also unlikely that the daughter in Trancers 6 is his progeny via Lyra.
So Deth has changed his own history. He CAN’T be a descendent of both Phill and Leena. If that is the case, how is Deth still in existence? One can argue this is all just poor writing for a b-movie film franchise, but it still bugs me. Unless Deth is some form of Timey Wimey (no not him) temporal constant like Jack Harkness, then Whistler was wrong, or rather this is a deterministic version of time travel. While a version of Deth was created through Leena and Phil, the version which goes back in time was always meant to take over Phill and father a daughter with someone else, continuing the Deth line through a different genetic branch. If he had not gone down the line then this would not have occurred and that Deth which we see at the start of the film would never have existed. It also means Deth could have let Whistler kill Leena and he would have been fine.
There is one final tweak to this temporal mess. In Trances 6, Deth goes back down the line and uses the body of his daughter. This was mostly due to Tim Thomerson unwilling to come back for this film. However, it then results in the following situation. Deth, in Phil’s body, uses the time travel drug to enter his daughter….not in that way! Mind out of the gutter you!. As such, if the Deth consciousness has left the Phil body, is Phil back in control? If so how is he coping with the future? Meanwhile, at the end of Trancers 6, Deth decides to hang around in his daughter. We are back to the same situation at the end of the first film – has he now effectively killed his daughter as well? Deth is obtaining virtual immortality by ‘leaping’ from one ancestor to another. He refuses to return each time, then at some point he will leap back into himself!
It really does hurt your head. However, it does not stop Trancers being an awesome film.
Paul "Logan Blaze" "Sugar Bear" Anderson has mined the best and worst of geekery for many years. He hosted Shut Up and Watch This, has worked for the Nerdsphere Network, and been a regular on The Underbase podcasts and owns more truly strange movies than you or I could ever do.
He is also the single greatest man bear pimp to have walked the planet.