"Dry hair's for squids."
-- Jack Deth
Back in the 1980s, when VHS rentals were just beginning to take off, the direct to video shelf of your local video store earned a well deserved reputation as a place to avoid. It quickly became a stop of last resort for all but the most adventurous renters, a dumping ground for unwatchable foreign horror movies, laugh-free comedies and Lorenzo Lamas action flicks. However, every so often a movie would show up on the DTV shelf that actually had some entertainment value. One of these was Charles Band's TRANCERS, a low budget riff on the previous year's THE TERMINATOR that managed to hide its lack of big action set pieces by substituting a clever script, good acting and quite a bit of humor.
Tim Thomerson stars as Jack Deth, a cop in 23rd century Lost Angeles, on the trail of arch villain Whistler (Michael Stefani). Not only is Whistler one tough dude to catch, but he also has the ability to control the minds of weak willed people, creating an army of minions called Trancers who do his bidding. In order to evade capture, Whistler transports his consciousness back to 1985 Los Angeles where he plans to murder the ancestors of the council that controls the city in the 23rd century. Deth chases after him, embedding his consciousness in the body of his ancestor, conveniently also a cop who looks just like Jack. Aided by Leena (Helen Hunt) Jack chases Whistler while avoiding Trancer attacks and being forced to cope with life in 1985 L.A., not necessarily in that order.
The film's biggest asset is Thomerson, who had the good sense to play Jack Deth straight and let the comedy come from his interaction with the strange characters around him. Whether dealing with surfer dudes, sports cars or a great scene in a punk nightclub (which features an awesome hardcore version of "Jingle Bells"), Thomerson creates a terrific fish out of water character. Helen Hunt is also very likeable as Leena and I still think that this is some of the best work she's ever done. They're aided by a smarter than usual script which takes the time to include some character development that normally would have been left out of a film like this. The script's attention to detail go a long way towards masking the film's non-existent budget and bad (even by 1980s direct to video standards) special effects.
It's probably not going to change your life but there are certainly worse ways to spend 76 minutes than with this likeable little sci-fi flick. Unfortunately, Charles Band was never one to let a good idea go to waste so he ran the concept into the ground with no less than five sequels (Hunt bailed after the third film, Thomerson lasted until the fifth). the sequels get progressively worse and, if possible, even cheaper looking. Thomerson even makes a late career appearance as Jack Deth in Band's 2006 EVIL BONG, which is something that just makes me cry. Ignore them and stick with the original.
For more overlooked film and a/v visit Todd Mason's blog.