The straight-to-video revolution began in earnest during the ’80s––those halcyon days of lukewarm Crazy Bread and 1 a.m. VHS rentals from Uncle Pete’s Video Suppository––and producer/writer/director Charles Band was bayonet-forward, leading the charge. In 1983 he formed Empire International Pictures, a modest but ambitious production house that specialized in low-budget genre titles with high entertainment value. In 1989, Band abandoned the struggling studio to form Full Moon Entertainment, but in that brief 6-year period, Empire International Pictures managed to crank out a handful of now-classic titles like Ghoulies, Re-Animator, From Beyond, Dolls, and Intruder.
1985’s Trancers is also a member of this Empire International class of over-achievers, a fondly-remembered slice of B-movie cheese that somehow, some way, manages to remain giddily entertaining after all these years. A growly, Neanderthal-browed Tim Thomerson plays Jack Deth, an Angel City police detective who lives in a future that looks a lot like Blade Runner as set-designed by an 8th grade drama class. His arch nemesis, Whistler, is a steely-eyed cult leader who can transform the weak-minded into “trancers”, grunting zombie-like creatures in bad make-up. When Whistler time-travels back to 1985 Los Angeles to trance some bitches in a cheaper-to-film decade, Jack Deth is forced to pursue him. Jack’s “core consciousness” is sent into the body an ancestor living in ’85, a poofy-haired journalist who has just wrapped up a one-night stand with an adorably young Helen Hunt. After smearing his hair back with a wad of hand lotion (“Dry hair’s for squids”), Jack divulges his time-travel agenda to Hunt, who is skeptical only until a shopping mall Santa gets all trancer up in Jack’s business with what are presumably a set of reindeer horns. Once Jack takes the trancer Santa down, Hunt has fully drunk the Kool-Aid and is ready to have Deth’s babies.
Several highly awkward make-out scenes follow (the almost 30-year age difference between Thomerson and Hunt is a glaring––and hilarious––distraction), but eventually, the duo refocuses on the mission at hand: getting that nefarious Whistler dude. Armed with a revolver, a magical time-slowing watch, and a bevy of sarcastic one-liners, Jack Deth gets down to business.
Trancers would eventually go on to spawn five straight-to-video sequels, and it’s easy to see why. There’s a blissful obliviousness to the entire production, like a retarded kid who doesn’t know he’s retarded. From its ridiculous synth score to its sloppy editing to its seemingly endless array of B-movie surprises (“Honda scooter chase!…Boom mic in the frame!”), Trancers is a movie that desperately wants to entertain you at any cost necessary…as long as that cost isn’t monetary. It’s a slice of history caught in amber, from a time when B-movie filmmakers tried to please their audience above all else. Unlike the studios of today, Empire International didn’t make intentionally shitty movies knowing they could break even on production costs after a stellar marketing campaign. Their intent was to make movies that entertained the widest possible audience. And if the film found an audience, the profits would eventually follow. That undoubtedly resulted in some dumb movies. But also a hell of a lot of dumb fun.