Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Mighty Double Bill - Dreamscape and Trancers

This poster has nothing to do with this article. I just really like it.

We here at Light Within Light definitely have our snobbish tendencies but we're also great champions of good B to Z grade films and genre films, as long as they're made with some zest and a sense of the cinematic language. There are few things as much fun as sitting down to watch a trashy, low-budget flick that is filled with all sorts of strange and weird touches that one would never find in a big budget Hollywood film. Certain genres excel at such low-budget output, especially martial arts films, action movies and horror. In fact, more often than not low budget genre films are a lot more interesting artistically than much of the blockbusters from Hollywood since the filmmakers have a lot more freedom to experiment and mess around with traditional tropes and themes within the genre.

Recently we had the painfully enjoyable experience of watching a double bill of epic proportions, two cheesy, ridiculous sci-fi films from the 80's, one a traditional B-flick while the other was ostensibly an A-level film when it was made but which time and common sense have basically reduced to the bottom of the budget bin at your local DVD store.

Let's start with Dreamscape, a film made by one Joseph Ruben who would go on to create such seminal 90's classics as The Good Son and Sleeping With the Enemy. The cast is quite fantastic, actually: A young Dennis Quaid, obviously nursing a rather severe coke habit; Kate "You call him Doctah Jones lady!" Capshaw; Max Von Sydow, with a really fake-looking moustache; and the great Christopher Plummer, whose job it basically is to look sinister and oh what a marvelous job he makes of it. Oh, and Norm from Cheers is in it too. Although he doesn't really do all that much. He shows up and drinks a lot of beer (which was funny) and talks about a horror novel he wrote once called "Stab" (maybe this is where Craven got the name for his film-within-a-film series from Scream). But then Norm gets shot in front of 100 psychopathic cheerleaders that don't seem to notice. But wait a minute... I'm getting ahead of myself.

The president of the united states (played by Eddie Albert of "Green Acres" fame - he should have stuck with that talking pig) is having horrible nightmares. Instead of going to a psychiatrist or turning to drink, like most normal people would, he puts evil-looking Christopher Plummer on the job. Plummer calls his old friend Max Von Sydow to start a research institute where they will study people's dreams. They will then find a bunch of people with psychic abilities to enter into people's dreams in order to cure them of their nightmares. Or something like that.

Anyway, Quaid is a psychic of some sort who mostly uses his abilities down at the track. When we first see him he's being chased by the most inept goons since the Home Alone movies. Quaid escapes but is picked up by Plummer's people and somehow convinced to take part in this weird experiment. He seems pretty hot on Capshaw, so maybe that had something to do with it. Anyway, the way the experiments work is that they put a normal person suffering from nightmares to sleep and then hook him or her up to this huge machine with probes that go into the back of the skull and on their chin. Because, you know, there's a lot of important neurological stuff down there in the chin. They then hook a psychic up to the machine too (also by the chin) and the psychic can then enter into the other persons dreams, helping them work out whatever issue is going on. Ingenious, right? You betcha. Quaid manages to help a couple of people out, including a little kid in a wheelchair who's having these dreams that a really funny cobra-type-monster-person is following him around. And this monster is a real hoot. It basically looks like a Ray Harryhausen special effect from the 60's if Harryhausen had been an alcoholic suffering from Delirium Tremens. And if he had Tourettes. And if he was blind. It's pretty bad. So Quaid fights this cobra-looking thing and beats it and then the kid is cured of his nightmares.

So maybe they can start working on the president now. But wait a minute, Plummer has another psychic in training, played by the great "that-guy!" actor David Patrick Kelley (he deserves a glass of bourbon one of these days). This guy enters into the dream of an old lady (we unfortunately don't see what it is) and she dies in the process. So he's figured out how to kill people in their dreams. We later learn that Plummer is using this guy as a kind of dreamy Lee Harvey Oswald. He's supposed to enter the president's dreams and kill him in there. The long and the short of it is that Quaid and Capshaw fall in love, figure this plot out, run from Plummer's bad guys and then Quaid enters the president's dream along with David Patrick Kelley where the two have kind of a cool dream-battle to the death. Somewhere in there Norm shows up and tries to warn Quaid about what's going on. And tries to sell him his book. But Plummer's goons shoot him in front of the cheerleaders. Good thing we explained that one.

David Patrick Kelley, emoting with the best of them

There were definitely some enjoyable moments in this film, primarily due to how bizarre they were. The dream scenes are really funny because they utilize so-bad-it's-cool 80's graphics. All kidding aside, some of these scenes are pretty visually inventive. The art design and cinematography are a lot of fun too. They use every fish-eyed lens you could imagine and the sets are done in a very old-school German expressionism style (there are some funny references to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and a few other films from the era). It's obvious that the folks that made this film were having a lot of fun. It takes itself just seriously enough to keep you interested but it's also tongue-in-cheek and deliberately silly in quite a few places.

There's literally no way to know whether this grab was taken from Dreamscape or "Cheers"

There are some really bad scenes in this film though, but fortunately they go full circle and become pretty entertaining. Our favorite was where Quaid somehow manages to enter into Capshaw's dream and they start getting it on in what seems to be a dream designed by Zalman King. Capshaw then wakes up and is mortified that Quaid was getting it on with her in her dream. So he was basically dream-raping her. Which is really weird and bizarre, and not at all in a good way. But Capshaw obviously likes the Quaidster so she forgives him (he's got great hair in this film). Another great scene is at the end when Quaid and Kelly are battling it out in the president's dream. Kelly is a huge martial arts fan and he's figured out how to manipulate the dreamworld so he makes himself into a Bruce Lee type warrior. Except he obviously knows about as much martial arts as Chris Farley. The scene where he goes after Quaid with laser nunchucks that are obviously made out of plastic has to be seen to be believed.

The performances were also kind of fun. Everyone kind of just does their thing, but they do it well. Sydow is creepy and lovable at the same time. Plummer is very sinister. Quaid has boyish charm and wears really tight jeans all the time. Capshaw has crazy 80's hair and runs away from bad guys. Norm drinks beer. No real surprises but the film is certainly well cast.

If there's a thunderstorm going on and you want to watch something really stupid then you could do much worse than Dreamscape. It's not a great film, by any means, the story is way to thin and ill-conceived for that, but it's kind of fun and is a lot more visually inventive and funny than most big-budget Hollywood films that come out today.

Some weird things to consider:

-This was made in '84, the same year as Nightmare on Elm Street. A busy year for killing people in their dreams. Coincidence? I don't think so.

-The gizmo they hook people up to looks an awful lot like the thingamajig from The Matrix. In fact, the scenes where they enter and exit the dreamworld look an awful lot like the scenes from the Matrix when they jump back and forth between the two realities. But there were no dream rapes in The Matrix. Though that one did have Keanu.

Okay, next up is Trancers, a low-budget sci-fi movie from '85 by B-movie auteur Charles Band who would go on to make such fantastically titled films as Kraa! The Sea Monster, Zarkorr! The Invader and Beach Babes from Beyond. Trancers stars Tim Thomerson, who was kind of famous in the 80's as a stand-up comedian but he's had a nice run in various supporting roles in films. I recognized him as the dad from Kathryn Bigelow's weird-but-kind-of-good vampire film Near Dark (which also includes Lancre Henriksen with a rat tail). Thomerson stars as Jack Deth (yup!), a tough-as-nails cop in the post-apocalyptic Angel City (formerly L.A.). Some semblance of order has been established by a kind of creepy, totalitarian government which the cops work for. They're basically good guys though, at least a lot better than the evil Whistler, who is this Jim Jones type cult leader who can brainwash weak-willed people ("squids) and turn them into "Trancers." If someone turns into a Trancer their skin turns yellow and they sound like James Earl Jones and try to eat you. Jack Deth thinks that Whistler has finally been killed so he's just cleaning up the last of the Trancers. But then he learns that not only is Whistler alive he's traveled through time to the L.A. of the 20th century where he intends to kill the ancestors of the folks on the totalitarian city council so he can rule Angel City. How does Jack Deth know this? Because Whistler helpfully sent him a hologram recording where he explains all this. Whistler killed Deth's family so Deth readily agrees to go back in time and catch Whistler before he can kill the ancestors of the remaining two council members.

Trancers was also known as Future Cop. Check out those great tag lines!

The metaphysics of the time travel are even shakier than usual in films of this sort. Basically, one's consciousness is transported to the body of a person in the past, and that person has to be one's ancestor (not quite sure why this is the case). But before leaving for the past Jack Deth destroys Whistler's body in the future. That seems to mean that Whistler is stuck in his ancestors body in the past. But at the end of the film SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER (as if anyone gave a rat's ass) Deth injects Whistler with some weird goo that is supposed to send him back into his own body in the future except, ooops!, there is no body so his consciousness evaporates. Or something. And then his ancestors consciousness returns to his body. But where was the ancestors consciousness while this was going on? And for that matter, what happened to Jack Deth's ancestor? Deth can't return to the future so he's stuck in his ancestors body (who is some douchebag named Phil). So what happens to Phil? Is he stuck in limbo for all eternity? Not even the unholy love-child of Descartes and Plato would be cool with this kind of dualism. Avatar, by the way, suffered from the exact same problem. But it was in 3-D, so it's all good.

Anyway, all of this is basically just a set-up for a kind of Demolition Man in reverse where the tough guy cop from the future tries to survive in the clean and beautiful L.A. of the 80's (?). He hooks up with this girl his ancestor Phil was having sex with, played by Helen Hunt (!), and together they try to stop Whistler from taking over the future through the past (?!?).

The film is actually a lot of stupid fun and it spawned numerous sequels (I think at least five - Thomerson and Hunt returned for parts II and III). It's very low-budget but visually inventive. Thomerson is a lot fun in the role of Jack Deth and Hunt is very charming as his confused companion. There are some fun chase scenes and inspired fight scenes, including one in a tanning salon where a trancer tries to tan Jack Deth to death (you have no idea how much pleasure I just got from writing that sentence). The film lags a bit and the story makes absolutely no sense but there's a lot of passion and genuine gusto in the filmmaking and everyone gives it everything they've got, which is (again) more than you can say for a lot of big-budget films.

A couple of fantastic scenes:

-Deth's hard-nosed captain has to travel through time to give him some information. The only ancestor he has in L.A. of 1985 is this cute ten year old girl. So when Deth is trying to get it on with Helen Hunt in this sleazy hotel room there's a knock on the door and it's this ten year old girl in a nightgown who starts cussing and swearing and giving him orders. That was fun. But then the captain/little girl notices Hunt in her underwear and starts making lewd comments. Which creeped me out. And then Deth throws the little girl/hard-nosed captain out but she comes back and starts ogling them while they get it on! But they're transported back into the future before things get too hot and heavy. At least I hope.

-Deth has a fancy James Bond-type watch that can slow time down, so for every second everyone else experiences he experiences 10. There's a scene where Hunt and Deth are being shot at where he uses this thing and we get a very low-budget, prototype version of the bullet-time technology that was used in the Matrix films and other similar wankfests. Which leads me to believe that the combined forces of Dreamscape and Trancers was actually the main inspiration for those Matrix films. Who would have thunk it?

Deth and the evil Whistler. Oh, and Helen Hunt's butt.

So, two fun and cheesy films that certainly have their problems but are rather nicely done for low-budget genre films. I personally tend to like movies like this a lot more than something like the Toxic Avenger (see Reid's review below). One of the primary criterion I have for evaluating films is how much honest passion and love went into the making of the film. I somehow feel like it devalues a film if the filmmakers are constantly winking at you, showing you that they know just as well as you do that their movie is a piece of shit. I would much rather have a Charles Band or Joseph Ruben than either a Ron Howard or those guys from Troma studios. There's a touch of Ed Wood in guys like Band and Ruben, and I mean that in the best way possible. They're not saying: "Hey, look at how bad this film is... could we have made a worse film?... really, doesn't it suck?"; what I think they're saying is: "I gave this film everything I got and if it suck so be it but at least I put my balls on the line and had a great time doing it." Occasionally you'll have filmmakers like that that are real artists and visionaries, people like John Carpenter or Brian DePalma who are incapable of making a mediocre film. They can only make incredible films or absolutely terrible ones. But in either case they're always better than mediocre filmmakers who play it safe, which includes most big-budget Hollywood filmmakers (I'm looking at you Howard, you baseball cap wearing bastard). And even though Charles Band or Joseph Ruben don't come close to a Carpenter or a DePalma they made their films with passion and joy, which is more than you can say about a lot of filmmakers these days.

Charles Band, director of Trancers and Gingerdead Man. He looks like a fun guy to have a beer with.

1 comment:

R Logan L said...

you had me at "dream rape"