Retro cult review: Trancers (1985)


Much of what heads our way these days is obsessed with the past, especially in terms of “genre cinema.” Whether it’s an outright remake, like the Poltergeist redo about to hit screens nationwide, or a franchise revival (the glorious Mad Max: Fury Road), or just a heart-on-its-sleeve homage factory, there’s a lot of repackaging and repurposing going in when it comes to horror and science fiction films. The results are naturally varied.

Take two of last year’s offerings: Adam Wingard’s The Guest and Lowell Dean’s WolfCop. Both made no bones about the fact that they were intended as throwbacks. Both wore their hearts on their sleeve. The main difference between the two came down to execution. WolfCop was content to lazily roll around in its influences and hope you didn’t notice how shallow it all was, whereas The Guest took its admiration for the past and molded it into something different. That’s what the best of these influence cocktails tend to do, and that’s exactly what Trancers did as well.

What is Trancers? To steal a term from The Terminator, it’s probably best described as a “tech noir.” Basically, we have a hard-boiled future cop named Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson) who must travel back in time to stop a criminal mastermind with psychic powers named Whistler (Michael Stefani) from assassinating the ancestors of important future figures and enslaving the human race (via said psychic abilities) by turning them into subhuman, zombie-like slaves (the titular “trancers”). After transporting “down the line” into the body of his own ancestor, Phil Deth (hah!), Jack must gain the trust of a woman named Lena (Helen Hunt) so that he can stop Whistler’s diabolical scheme. And did I mention that Jack’s boss, McNulty (Art LaFleur), has also bodyhopped into his own ancestor (a pre-teen girl!) to keep an eye on Jack? If everything in this paragraph doesn’t appeal to you, then please don’t bother watching this. You aren’t worthy of such entertainment.

On paper, Charles Band’s Trancers sounds like some half-assed hodge-podge of The Terminator and Blade Runner. It’s honestly not surprising that it sprang from both concepts, given the man behind the film (Band) and the fact that both sci-fi classics had stormed theaters in the three years prior to Trancers’ release. What sets the film apart from many other rip-offs and pretenders is the talent involved. Band isn’t all that talented a director, but he’s solid enough to not completely bungle good material when it is handed to him. Lucky for me, that material comes courtesy of writers Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo. That’s right, the creators of The Rocketeer and showrunners of the ’90s The Flash series (among other things) steered this narrative ship, and their deft pulpy touch is felt throughout. While Thomerson is wonderful in the role, they should be given just as much credit for Jack Deth and his time-traveling hard-boiled shenanigans actually working as well as they do.

Speaking of the cast — that’s the other linchpin here. Sure there are a lot of great concepts at play, including the film’s concept of time travel and devices such as the “long second watch,” but even the worst low budget cult flicks often have at least a few good ideas within. It’s the ones with a little more to offer beyond that stand the test of time. In addition to the writing and the concepts, Trancers has the cast to back them up. Again, Thomerson is wonderful as the lead, but equally impressive is a young Helen Hunt as his “present day” sidekick. Unbearably cute and incredibly charming throughout, Hunt is an utter delight here. Michael Stefani and Art LaFleur, as the villain and Deth’s boss respectively, are no slouches either.

Honestly, with a more seasoned director at the helm and a larger budget, this could have had the makings of a classic. As is, it stands out as an exceptionally fun little B-movie and one that I can see myself revisiting soon in the future. Full Moon/Empire films are actually a rather large blind spot for me. I haven’t seen much beyond Stuart Gordon’s work for them and a handful of Puppet Master and Subspecies films, so I was a bit wary when I popped this in. That cautious optimism quietly gave way to a big smile on my face, and I now find myself excited to watch the next one … especially since Hunt apparently stuck right alongside Thomerson for the first few sequels! I’ll at least be tackling Trancers II: The Return of Jack Deth (gotta love that title!) later in the week, since it hit Blu-ray today. And perhaps I’ll get to the rest of the series later this year.

Whenever I finally sit down with an old cult title like this that I haven’t seen, I’m always worried that I’ve grown past the age where I would have fallen head of heels for it and have entered a phase of my life where I cannot fully appreciate what it might have to offer. Finally seeing it now, after decades of passing it over on store shelves and streaming services, Trancers still managed to be a winner.