Wednesday, 27 April 2016

B-Movies I damn well love - "Trancers"

So look – I write hugely angry blogs and sometimes I think I'm funny and sometimes I'm aware I come across as some kind of demented insular twerp.

Sometimes. Sometimes you're the toepick so don't get cocky.

I wanted to share, then, a couple of the things I absolutely love in movies, the sort of things that tickle my pink, that make the corners of my lip areas smile like a pornstar's – smile.

Forgive the weird formatting of this piece, it's all over the shop but I honestly just can't be arsed fixing it.

A brief and selective history of B-Movies

So what the hell is a B-Movie, dominicispalmer you sonofabitch? First off, that's not cool, my mum died for your sins, you can't call her that. Second off; well, at the risk of sounding patronising to those of you who already know ( like THAT'S ever happened before ) a basic definition of a B-Movie is that of a low budget, secondarily positioned genre movie, used in a double feature with a movie that would be classified as studio grade. In the thirties forties and fifties.

See, really it relates to that golden era of Hollywood where drive-ins ruled the roost. The term itself was not used in such a derisory way as it seems to be now, and often described a shorthand affection for films that had their hearts in the right place ( and their commercial cynicism don't get me wrong ) but not the budget to supplement them.

Dodgy effects, ropey acting, wobbly sets, scenes missing and the general sense that no one was watching so they could slip in subversive messages were the order of the day.

As the fifties segued into the sixties and tv took over, the B-Movie became the exploitation flicks that still inform the movies we watch today; to get people into the cinemas one sometimes needs gimmickry. Sound familiar? Censorship was shifting, the need for subversion became the desire to shove tits, gore, cussing and more onto the big screen to draw an audience in. Which it did!

Film makers such as Roger Corman, the amazingly sleazy yet strangely chaste Russ Myers, and in particular George A Romero were coming alive during this period, and with relatively tiny budgets, and casts made up of friends, were using their exploitation savvies to explore the world around them, be it Romero's satire, Corman's biker movies, or Myer's fascination with the american landscape of breasts. 

There were a million other exploitation movie makers flitting around doing their thing – including one Sergio Leone, who single handedly created an exploitation genre unto itself in the late sixties. Italy – and oddly enough Australia – had huge exploitation industries.

So the sixties gave way with the inevitability of another Star Wars movie referencing Darth Vader's face, to the seventies.

The seventies fostered a group of cutting edge, angry, drug fuelled film makers who had come through the exploitation circuit and used it as their film school. De Palma, Scorcese, Schrader, Cameron etc all had dealings with Corman in one way or another. 

Coppola – actually a generation above the young bucks in film making terms – had been a nudie-cutie movie maker. These were intelligent people, working within the low budget system to voice their concerns about the America around them. A new golden era of movie making was booming, theoretically fuelled by independent movie makers funded by a studio system desperately in love with the idea of directors as stars bringing in the bacon. The exploitation era had given these film makers a gritty confidence in warts and all film making; they knew there were audiences out there for their work.

Then Star Wars and Heaven's Gate occurred and everything got a little bit shit. Studios panicked. Directors, already becoming bloated on their own success started getting weird. Actors were once again becoming stars. There was lots of money but no one wanted to spend it.

And exploitation movies became B-Movies once more, only now instead of being fostered by film makers like Scorcese and De Palma, they were low-grade knock-offs of existing movies – notably Star Wars - being created by independent low budget hacks like Corman and Charles Band.

Charles Band was essentially a mogul. In his time he has run an enormous amount of film companies, mostly distribution groups for his own work, almost all of which have had Full Moon somewhere in the title. He has been linked to ropey rubber suit sci-fi, soft-core porn, and horror-themed computer games. His films often have a fascination with dolls, puppets and people who have been shrunk. According to Wikipedia he has made over 300 movies, often as director, writer and producer.

None of them are particularly good.

But he also directed one of my favourite B-Movies of all time...


The Terminator” came out in 1984. It was a smash; at a time when Sword and Sorcery movies were beginning to take on a life of their own, this was a dark, driven, gritty B-Movie, given serious credo by a film maker working hard to make his low budget feel like a bonus rather than a problem.

It's a great movie, just a really well put together piece of work. It's from the eighties so it delighted in shock value but it has a story that packs an emotional wallop, strong acting and perfectly pitched action beats. In a lot of ways it's still James Cameron's best, alongside "Aliens."

Charles Band clearly liked this movie. But more, he clearly liked that it made money. It was a low budget exploitation flick with no stars ( beyond a career-fledgling Arnuhlt ) and it made money.

So he did the obvious thing – and with the aid of two company writers knocked up a knock off. Time travel detective zombie redemption romance flick Trancerswas the result.

Now, my history with this movie goes back a million years. Around the late eighties and early nineties, brilliantly barmy British film maker Alex Cox ( Repo Man, Walker, Highway Patrolman & Sid and Nancy ) hosted the BBC 2 midweek program Moviedrome. Essentially this was a selection of arthouse and oddities, headlined by a small chat about the presented film given by a smart-mouthed Cox.

Films that aired included “Trancers,” “Exotica,” “Trust,” "Night of the Comet" and ultimately “The Terminator” itself – possibly the first time it was aired uncut, if I'm not mistaken. If I am, I just made that up, which proves you can't trust me. Trust me.

I was probably sixteen or seventeen when I first saw “Trancers.” I understood what it was, based not only on Cox's upfront and honest preview review but on my own burgeoning interest in movies as an entity. I understood that it was a cheap “Terminator” and “Blade Runner” knock off. I understood that it wasn't exactly quality film making. But by Infinite Bubble did I fall hard for it.


Starting in some bleak distant future amalgamation of California called Angel City, stand-up comedian and all round tough guy, the late Tim Thomerson plays Trancer-hunting dectective Jack Deth. Trancers are strange, half-possessed half zombified humans created for no particular reason by the powerfully psychic Whistler – the man responsible for the death of Deth's wife. Mrs Deth. Mrs Deth is dead. She died. Mrs Deth died. She's dead.

When Whistler sends his consciousness down the line – or back in time – into the body of a relative in the eighties to destroy Angel City's council ( for undisclosed reasons ), Jack Deth is the only one who can stop him. Sending his consciousness back into the body of his own distant relative Phil Deth, he discovers that Whistler's ancestor is a police detective, and he's begun trancing people again. With the help of Helen Hunt's Leena, a strong-minded punk rock girl who was seeing Phil, he must find and protect Hap Ashby, a former baseball pitcher now living on Skid Row, and face Whistler in a final showdown.

So yeah – the plot is as barmy as your average sci-fi sunday. Action moments include an old woman turning Trancer and being thrown around a futuristic fifties-style diner; likewise a store Santa Claus; there's a wonderful scene set in a punk rock club where Deth faces off – in true Terminator style – against a pack of loud-mouthed punks. But what truly impresses about this movie are it's ambitions, it's scope, and the teetering edge the performances walk on – genuinely sincere, but because of the fish out of water element, still allowed a certain camp swagger to justify some of the movie's larger shortcomings. Of which there are many.

So this film essentially has it's cake and eats it; setting itself up as a futuristic sci-fi piece, replete with smokilly lit action set-pieces, some truly imaginative matte paintings and sets covering for it's absolute lack of budget, and a bubbling synth score ( more on which later ) before switching itself into a then-present-day eighties thriller so they can film in friend's houses and businesses but still call themselves sci-fi. All iced by a perfectly balanced self-awareness typified by Thomerson's toweringly gruff performance, all scowls and forties tec hardness.

I cannot stress enough how much I love this movie. It is a cheap looking rip off, of so many other, better movies, but in my mind this will always beat the over-rated "Bladerunner" for sheer entertainment value.

For me, what makes this wonderful movie sing is that ambition behind it. Everything about it is clunky, from the sometimes hilariously guff exposition to the shoddy editing and crater sized plot holing at its heart, to the laughably obvious be-wigged stuntmen scattered throughout.

Yet the script has genuine heart, with some beautifully judged zingers and great care taken in the relationships between it's characters. Check out this exchange, occurring early into Jack's arrival in 1984.

Jack Deth: What I do wrong?
Leena: I don't know, maybe you're schizo or something.
Jack Deth: What? What does that mean?
Leena: Last night you said you grew up in L.A. Today you couldn't find Cahuanga Boulevard, you put shit in your hair, you can't even remember my name
Mrs. Santa Claus: Leena! Get over here!
Jack Deth: Your name's Leena?
Leena: Did I give you my phone number?
Jack Deth: No.
Leena: Oh, thank God.

Pithy, concise, character based writing that takes great joy in placing Jack Deth amongst the denizens of the eighties and then poking fun at everyone.

The plot is essentially a skeleton to hook it's observations on the age old fish out of water story into, a variation on the Conneticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court tale. The sci-fi is cute; silly and cute and completely harmless.

But for me, the thing that caught me back then and sticks with me now, is the strange aura of melancholy that hovers across the piece.

This is a story about a man who lost everything when he lost his wife, given the opportunity for redemption but at a possibly terrible cost. His relationship with Leena is spiky but human, and will obviously result in a case of the eighties not-gays, but there's also a wonderful sadness and humour about it – typified by his constantly missing out on Phil's sexual encounters with Leena by being dragged back to the future to give progress reports at inappropritate moments.

This sadness and sense of loss extends to the character of Hap Ashby, a once-was baseball player languishing in Skid Row, an alcoholic who has given up on life. That he will be the man who helps rid the future world of the evil Whistler gives it that “Terminator” trope of saving the future saviour of the future; but by giving him this strangely tragic background it adds to the sometimes overwhelming sense of aching sadness that powers the film.

The sadness at the movie's heart is immeasurably added to by the score; a gentle, lilting, synthy piece of beauty by Phil Davies and Mark Ryder, who have contributed scores to many of Band's movies. For what that's worth.

Rather than going down the frantic, Fairlight and Oberheim percussive route of many an action movie of it's time, seemingly inspired by Brad Fiedel's gorgeous Terminator score and the entirety of Vangelis' back catalogue, the two men created an oddly sorrow-filled soundtrack that adds huge depth to the on-screen story, guiding that overall sense of melancholia. There are of course drones, whistles, and bloops befitting it's genre and era, but just take a listen to the gorgeous end theme – a track played out AFTER the film's supposedly happy ending.

( Sharp eyed listeners might note that the above link brings one to the "Trancers III" soundtrack; this is because the score was twice recycled - wholesale - for the first two sequels. Did I mention that Charles Band was cheap? )

This is a film steeped in a strange nostalgia : one of Deth's past-times in the future is diving into the destroyed wreckage of what was Los Angeles, now covered by the ocean, to find antique artefacts. Even that little character trait speaks measures as to the ambition behind the writers intentions, their understanding of irony as the man who would wax nostalgic is sent into the very past he's searching for.

Now an artefact itself, the film hasn't weathered well on it's direct-from-VHS transfer to DVD. It's obvious failings are glaring and many. But it's charming, funny, nostalgic and sad, and surprisingly sincere given its pedigree. I often wonder what a better film maker would make of the better-than-usual quality screenplay. I'd be cool with a soft reboot, as long as they once again recycled that score.

All that aside however, I absolutely recommend this wonderful B-Movie to anyone with even a passing interest in exploitation; if you can find it. Maybe some of them illegal sites might have it - I think the statute of guilt limitations is probably up on this one.

And so...

What's next. Well my intention is to start working through many of the B-type movies that have given me such pleasure over my many years of movie watching. I'm not someone who is interested in so-bad-they're-good movies; I never have been. But I can look past low budgets and lesser movie making if there's heart, style, or ambition to flicks.

I'll be looking at films such as Sean S Cunningham's "House" quartet; the amazing "Buckaroo Banzai;" the forgotten Moviedrome classic that was "Vamp;" as well as more contemporary movies such as "Life after Beth" and "Blood Sucking Bastards."

And a promise - I have been rightfully called a writer who's work is "too wordy." So as this is my introductory piece as well as my first recommendation, I can only promise that from now on I'll be hella-shorter!

Stick with me, you gaping holes of fart. You will 
not be disappointed. And if anyone has any suggestions, statements, or comments do not hesitate to make them.

Ciao for now