A look at the Trancers Franchise (1985 – 2002)

A franchise spanning 17 years and containing 6 and half outings, Trancers, was one of Charles Band’s signature series alongside The Puppet Master and Subspecies movies.

Existing well in the realms of the low budget, sci-fi, video fodder Trancers gained a comfortable cult following and much love for it’s knucklehead of a main character Jack Deth.

Trancers (1985)

Director: Charles Band

Cast: Tim Thomerson, Helen Hunt, Michael Stefani, Art LaFleur

Trancers is one of those movies a large quantity of people are aware of but few have actually seen. This boils down to a movie that is a notorious, low budget, Terminator cash-in and on the other hand it has a loyal cult following.

A cop from the future, Jack Deth, has been on the trail of Martin Whistler, a criminal mastermind who uses psychic powers to turn people into zombie like creatures known as Trancers. Whistler escapes from 2247 using ancestral bloodline time travel and takes over the body of a 1985 ancestor. Jack pursues, and takes over his great grandson, a journalist named Phil Dethton. The two continue their chase in 1985.

Sharing much in common with Zone Troopers, Trancers actually contains a fairly beefy plot, shows some depth when it comes to character development and a rather hip approach (for its time.)

Tim Thomerson serves up another impossibly tough hero. Combining James Cagney’s style with Clint Eastwood’s cool, Jack Deth is a very agreeable hero. The pre-stardom Helen Hunt gives the typically screamy dame of a sidekick more layers than what the writing might have required.

The ambition on display here is hardly hindered by the limited budget. Sure, the glimpse we have of the future is not as jaw dropping as Blade Runner and the editing of some of the action sequences could have been a lot tighter. However, everything else seems to work, and work well. There are some pretty clever ideas, including a great gadget, the Long Second watch, push the button and it turns 1 second into 10 for the wearer. Rumoured to be in the upcoming Apple Watch.

A mostly successful opening to the franchise and a film worth watching as time has been very kind to it.

Outcome: Impressive and deceptive sci-fi with more to offer than you would expect.

Trancers: City of Lost Angels (1988)

Director: Charles Band

Cast: Tim Thomerson, Helen Hunt, Aylson Croft, Art LaFleur

This is the most interesting film in the series. Not so much for the story, but it’s legacy. Released in an anthology movie called Pulse Pounders, with two other 30 minute movies and lost for over 2 decades. Eventually, it was found and restored, then put onto the original Trancers Blu Ray and DVD as an extra.

Jack Deth is targeted by assassin Edlin Shock who has escaped from prison to extract revenge. Deth is now work as a Private Eye in 1988 Los Angeles. Teaming up with his Police Chief from the future, McNulty, who’s only ancestor to inhabit in the time period was a 13-year-old girl, Deth is back in action, for 30 minutes!

The interesting thing about the Trancers series is that despite the hoaky plots of zombie-esq Trancer creatures, the hero is having to deal with relationship troubles with his love interests in a more complicated way, thanks to the time travel and we will come to this later.

At this runtime the film works a little better as they pack everything in tightly and there is little room to it to become dull. Thomerson, Hunt and LaFleur have great fun here and they writers are proving that they know how to liven up a silly script with some fun ideas.

Outcome: This is a great follow-up to the original. Cheap, silly, funny and inventive.

Trancers II: The Return of Jack Deth (1991)

Director: Charles Band

Cast: Tim Thomerson, Helen Hunt, Biff Manard, Megan Ward

At first glance Trancers II looks to be an awesome sequel to a perfect low budget sci-fi hit. The original cast is reunited and things pick up to include the six year gap between the films. Problems arise from Deth’s decision to stay in the past and there is some fun to be had when his wife from the future turns up.

So why is it that the end result feels like Band invited the cast up to his house for the weekend to shoot a quick flick that they wrote on the Friday night. The script is, annoyingly, amateur hour and the lack of charm does not help the movie gel together. The decent line up of familiar B-movie faces should have guaranteed a fun ride but the loose and awkward direction by Band just leaves things feeling horrible. Thomerson is given some truly horrendous dialogue. Fantastic B-movie legends Richard Lynch and Jeffery Combs are completely underused and wonderful Barbara Crampton and Art La Fleur’s characters are completely inconsequential. The biggest offense is Biff Manard, whomever is responsible for developing this character from the first movie deserves a flogging.

The action climax is the only saving grace, and believe me, this is from desperately seeking something nice to say. It entertains, lightly. There are a few decent effects along the way and Thomerson’s macho persona only really shines through during the last 20 minutes. The middle of the movie loses track and becomes a bit of an emotional drama at stages. You will be winching as Deth attempts to enter into a diplomatic conversation when his present wife catches him kissing his wife from the future.

This is one of the most annoying sequels to a cult classic and for what it sets out to do and completely failing in every way to achieve results.

Outcome: Disappointing.

Trancers III: Deth Lives (1992)

Director: C. Courtney Joyner

Cast: Tim Thomerson, Andrew Robinson, Melanie Smith, Helen Hunt

For the second entry to suck pretty badly it comes as a pleasant surprise that this follow-up manages to tick many boxes. Maybe I expected very little from the 3rd Jack Deth outing but I certainly managed to find a joyous and entertaining time. It’s by no means a classic but still worth your time.

The main reason for this is the lack of Band direction. Instead Joyner in brought in. Whilst this not a name you will recognise he does manage put together a tighter and slicker movie than Band. Adding to this is Thomerson who gives this his all after a pretty lazy performance in the second entry. Helen Hunt manages a cameo too, despite becoming a bit of a name, certainly she was a few years out from Twister but she was considered a serious actress.

This entry is much darker and violent than the last two. It’s nice to see that Deth’s personal problems are not ignored as if the last movie never happened. Given that his catastrophic love life was the only storyline worth following in the second outing it would have been a shame to waste the time invested.

It does feel that the storyline from Trancers III could have been used in any 90’s sci-fi movie, with the word Trancers added to the odd scene to help keep it within the series. However, the addition of Jack Deth kicking a bit more ass than normal helps the film enormously.

Whilst undergoing a divorce Jack is pulled out of the “present day” and back to 2247 to stop a major outbreak of Trancers and save the city. It’s refreshing that this entry spends most of its time in the future and whilst the budget is larger than any of the previous Trancers movies. There is a lot of creativity with the special effects and practical locations. The tone has been changed, especially when compared to the lightweight 2nd entry and the film is a lot darker, featuring a great deal more action.

Outcome: THE sequel to Trancers the fans deserved.

Trancers 4: Jack of Swords (1994)

Director: David Nutter

Cast: Tim Thomerson, Stacie Randall, Ty Miller, Teri Ivens

A quick trip to Romania, two scripts, same cast, limited budget and some crappy props.Trancers is back! And following the 4th entry franchise tradition, switches it’s numbering convention, in this case roman numerals to the arabic numeral system.

Jack has settled in the future. His love life is a mess with Helen Hunt out of the picture and finds himself dumped by the future wife. Whilst on the job Jack is transported to a different dimension that seems to be having trouble with Trancers. Jack lends a hand.

To be entirely honest Trancers 4 starts out well, like many similar movies, it has some fun with its ubermacho hero and the audience is treated to some lovely quips from Deth as he struggles to deal with some primitive “screwheads.”

The Screwhead description works on a couple of levels. Firstly, this has a very familiar feel to it. Much like Army Of Darkness, a knucklehead of a hero is sent to a medieval period to do battle with an unwanted evil. The wisecracking misogynist blunders his way through causing death and destruction to the locals.

The whole production feels similar to a bad episode of Hercules or Xena. Thomerson who initially seems very cool in the role ends up lampooning it with idiotic swordplay and over the top reactions. The final and most glaring offense is the illogical ending. Little is explained and the climax seems quite absurd.

A real shame things came to this. What looked promising quickly turned to muck. Even the original soundtrack has been replaced. At 70 minutes, this is a pretty short entry, however, they leave the ending open for the next sequel that was filmed concurrently.

Outcome: A bland and effortless entry into would should have been an awesome series

Trancers 5: Sudden Deth (1994)

Director: David Nutter

Cast: Tim Thomerson, Teri Ivens, Ty Miller, Stacie Randall

Back to back action from Trancers 4 results in more of the same. It pains me the think that such a limp approach was taken to these two movies. Sure there could have been no sequels made at all, so something is better than nothing.

Trancers 5 should really just be cut down, alongside Trancers 4 and the two stitched together. It is completely unnecessary for there are two films, aside from getting fans and enthusiasts to pay double. With a similar running time to Trancers 4, 70 minutes features some lengthy opening credits and insanely detailed prologue. It’s not outside the powers of a slightly skilled editor to lose a lot of the bloat and come up with a pretty tidy, and energetic sequel.

There is a tiny hint of an underlying theme that the writers have discovered, but avoided exploring as it might have actually required thought to write it. Jack Deth’s internal battle with his chosen livelihood. So much killing, such a hollow shell of a man and why he is so alone. Given the attempts of the second installment to add depth to Deth it seemed that exploring this would not have been outside of the realm for one of these sequels. Certainly, it would have given these sequels more to work with. The darker nature of the 3rd film helped reinvigorate the franchise. So it goes that these two adventures do nothing for the development of Deth merely mentioning a possibility and further proving that Trancers 4 and 5 were just an opportunity to use left over sets from Band’s more successful Subspecies franchise and squeeze several bucks from the fans that Trancers and Trancers III managed to establish.

All sounds a bit harsh and deservedly so. Thomerson does his best to make it worthwhile borrowing greatly from Bruce Campbell’s Ash character from Army of Darkness. I drew parallels between Trancers 4 and Army of Darkness before and they are still present in Trancers 5. A bad variant of Jack Deth appears for a short while and there is a quest for an item that possess the power to send Jack back to his own world. Not to mention more swordplay, horse riding and castles under siege.

However, given the amount of time the writers had to play with on the two entries it seems they really hadn’t quite taken into account that an ending would be required. What we are treated to is a rushed addition to the storyline, the mildest character development for Deth and too much loose ends to wrap up.

There still is greatness in the Trancers series however the weaker entries only serve to enhance the highlights. Trancers 5 is a mess, just as II and 4. It has even more limited appeal than the 4th entry and truly should not exist.

Outcome: Ill conceived nonsense that Thomerson struggles to salvage.

Trancers 6 (2002)

Director:  Jay Woelfel

Cast: Zette Sullivan, Robert Donavan, Jennifer Cantrell, Ben Bar

A new face, an attempt to revive the franchise and some humour at Deth’s expense. How could it go wrong?

I fully believed that this was a student level production. But two things caused me to think again. Firstly, that’s implying student’s can only make terrible movies, they at least have a grasp of the fundamentals of filmmaking and the desire to make something worthwhile. Secondly, the inclusion of Robert Donovan, a character actor who is much, much better than the material here (however, you are forgiven for initially thinking it is Bryan Cranston.)

The plotline is wafer thin. The switch from Jack Deth to Jo Deth must have been made after Thomerson declined and this would also account for the extra few minutes added to the runtime to include footage for the gender change.

This switch is the only interesting aspect of the movie and once done there is nothing to keep your attention. The humour is aimed directly at Jack Deth having to wear a skirt and drive a Jetta with flower stickers. That’s about it. Aside from the unintentionally bad special effects and some embarrassing quips that even Thomerson would have difficulty pulling off.

Outcome: Utter rubbish

Is that it?

Almost, Thomerson played Jack Deth in a short cameo in Charles Band’s Evil Bong movie, calling one of the main character a squib.

There were also a couple of comic books released. It might look like there are three on the market, however, the first issue has an alternate cover.


The future Jack, the future!

A seventh Trancers movie is not beyond the realms of possibility. Thomerson has mentioned in the past he would be interested, as did Charles Band. I can’t imagine Trancers 6 did enough business to warrant a 7th outing.

However, right now, the closest thing we have is Dollman (1991.) A classic in it’s own right and with a similar feel to the Trancers series. Thomerson also stars and there is a bit of a franchise going on there and I plan to investigate.

Best to worst:

  1. Trancers
  2. Trancers III: Deth Lives
  3. Trancers: City of Lost Angels
  4. Trancers 4: Jack of Swords
  5. Trancers 5: Sudden Deth
  6. Trancers II: The Return of Jack Deth
  7. Trancers 6

Conclusion

The Trancers movies have a limited appeal, mostly to goofy sci-fi B-movie lovers or Thomerson fans. The series has had more downs than ups. However, given the continuing story, the series trundles along more consistently than most franchises, especially when there is a direct-to-video approach. We can only hope that we might just see Deth striking back one last, grandiose time, but the likelihood of that is minimal.