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