Trancers

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When I was growing up in the early 1990s, the sci-fi section of the video store was my second home. Most of the tapes that I took home were DTV dreck with glossy artwork and succinct, sensational quotes adorning the packaging. The majority of these were one-off titles that I would forget almost immediately after the end credits began, but I was working towards something bigger. There were two franchises that sounded very similar to my adolescent self. Both were tucked away close to the end of the alphabet but took up ample shelf space and I wanted them all: SCANNERS and TRANCERS.

What I didn’t know at that time, was how different these would all be. Unlike David Cronenberg’s critically and commercial successful SCANNERS (1981), TRANCERS (1985) would develop more of a cult following. The former title would earn two theatrical sequels as SCANNERS II: THE NEW ORDER (1991) and SCANNERS III: THE TAKEDOWN  (1992) as well as two DTV spin-offs/sequels SCANNER COP (1994) and SCANNERS:  THE SHOWDOWN (1995). But Charles Bands’ TRANCERS would go even further—yet on a much smaller scale—with four DTV sequels released while I was a child and one many years after: TRANCERS II (1991), TRANCERS III (1993), TRANCERS 4: JACK OF SWORDS (1994), TRANCERS 5: SUDDEN DETH (1995) and, finally, TRANCERS 6 (2002). Save for TRANCERS II, neither Charles Band or David Cronenberg had a hand in what followed their original features, but they just kept coming anyway.

The mid-80s through mid-90s was a swell time to be a sci-fi fan with theatrical heavy hitters like THE TERMINATOR (1984), ALIENS (1986), ROBOCOP (1987), TOTAL RECALL, TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY (1991), and JURASSIC PARK (1993). But for every box office juggernaut there was a slew of titles that were produced and distributed exclusively for the home video market and Charles Band capitalized on that. Starting out with the small theatrical outfit Empire Pictures, Band would put his work on screens around the country which included the likes of TRANCERS as well as that of other filmmakers like Stuart Gordon’s RE-ANIMATOR (1985) and FROM BEYOND (1986) or the cult favorites GHOULIES (1985) and TROLL (1986). Empire wouldn’t last forever and in 1989, Band would want to take things to the burgeoning video market with Full Moon Features. And TRANCERS was brought along with it.

The first TRANCERS wasn’t exactly a huge moneymaker, but it came almost directly after fellow time travel flick (and much higher earner) THE TERMINATOR, allowing for an interest in the subject matter to still remain. It also didn’t hurt that its entire advertising campaign seemed to be a riff on 50s and 60s espionage/spy cinema with the VHS cover art being almost easy to mistake for a Bond title (save for the future gun and gear). But what TRANCERS had that THE TERMINATOR didn’t was psychic powers. Band was never shy on playing copycat and/or melding a few popular things into one – is anyone surprised that Band’s most popular series, PUPPET MASTER, began one year following the huge success of CHILD’S PLAY (1988)? – and it made sense to take the two things that were perhaps the most popular in the genre at the time, a little bit of SCANNERS, a little bit of THE TERMINATOR, and you get TRANCERS.

TRANCERS is far from great cinema, and it really doesn’t hold a candle to anything that it is Frankenstined together from, but it does feature hovercrafts, zombies and a cheesy narration track that makes Harrison Ford’s discarded one for BLADE RUNNER (1982) sound like it was a good idea. And it also features Helen Hunt in a Santa outfit, so get ready to add this to your annual Christmas viewing list. My elementary-school-aged, sci-fi obsessed self never could quite figure out how to separate the TRANCERS and SCANNERS flicks – especially once SCANNER COP became a thing – continuously re-renting SCANNERS III when really wanting to see Jack Deth for the third time. Going back and re-watching them now, it’s surprising how much of an identity that Bands’ series actually has, even if the films are basically a patchwork of greater things that have already (or are to) come. And nobody writes lines like this anymore: “I’m from another time, another world. I don’t even know what you people eat for lunch.”

 

Justin LaLiberty holds degrees in film preservation from the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation and film studies from Keene State College. He is a regular contributor to Paracinema Magazine, writes the Geek Weird column for Geek New Wave and is currently writing a book on XXX parody films. He is a projectionist at Jacob Burns Film Center and regularly haunts NYC movie houses showing any type of genre/trash cinema.

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