This week, we’ll be focusing our posts on holiday movies, including several that we feel are worth putting into your holiday viewing rotation this year. Follow along here.
For some of us, the Christmas season isn’t complete until we’ve seen Martin Riggs do an impression of the Three Stooges in a Xmas tree lot, or John McClane affix a pistol to his sweaty, dirty back with wrapping tape that says “Seasons Greetings.” Yes, the Christmas action movie has officially been a thing since the 1980s and, much like the Christmas horror movie, has become a subgenre unto itself, transcending the presence of holiday decorations and a December setting. Some may debate their holiday legitimacy, but with this year’s Violent Night paying Scream-esque homage to the subgenre, it feels like such arguments should be laid to rest.
How and where the whole Christmas action movie thing began, however, is still very much up for debate. Even though Hollywood has been making films explicitly set at and concerning the holiday season practically since the dawn of cinema itself, the majority of Christmas movies from the Golden Age tend to be either comedies or melodramas. The ahead-of-its-time game changer may be 1947’s Lady in the Lake, an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective novel that changes the book’s setting of midsummer to Christmastime. While not an action movie per se, it may have been an influence on future noirs with a holiday setting, like The French Connection and The Silent Partner.
The ‘80s Christmas action movie ramped up with 1985’s Invasion USA and 1986’s Cobra, and quickly became popularized thanks to 1987’s Lethal Weapon and 1988’s Die Hard. Before all of them, however, was 1984’s Trancers. Set primarily in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve, the movie may not have been the ur-text that inspired the likes of Shane Black and Joel Silver, but it so clearly lays the groundwork for what would become the Christmas action movie that it’s difficult not to see it as such.
Trancers was one of the early features of Empire Pictures, the low-budget independent studio founded by director/producer Charles Band. Empire was one of the many independents specializing in genre and exploitation films in the tradition of American International and New World Pictures, meaning that Band wasn’t an auteur filmmaker looking to creatively express himself so much as he was chasing what was trendy in the cinematic landscape at the time. As such, Trancers is an unabashed B-movie stew: part sci-fi, part horror, part cop noir.
The film succeeds in the way so many independent genre films did during the golden age of low-budget exploitation cinema: by being utterly charming and toeing the line between spoof and sincerity. Beginning in the 23rd century, it follows retired trooper Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson), a one-time legendary hunter of Trancers, creatures who were once human that are “tranced” into becoming mindless slaves of the evil Whistler (Michael Stefani). To Jack’s dismay, it turns out Whistler escaped certain death on their last encounter, and has used time travel technology to go “down the line” to inhabit his ancestor’s body in 1985 in order to rebuild his Trancer army and murder the ancestors of the council members of Angel City, effectively crippling the future before it happens.
The council sends Deth into the body of his ’85 ancestor, a womanizing journalist named Phil who’s just hooked up with punk rock scenester Leena (Helen Hunt, in one of her earliest roles). Jack, in Phil’s body, has to convince Leena to help him find and stop Whistler’s ancestor, who just happens to be an L.A. police detective. Director Band and writers Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo keep the film busy, energetic, and savvily self-aware; at one point, Deth watches an episode of Peter Gunn on television and complains about the character’s silly name.
Trancers establishes the Christmas action movie by subverting the holiday in much the same fashion as Lethal Weapon, Die Hard and their ilk would. First and foremost, the Los Angeles setting is a subversion, as Christmastime on the Best Coast already has an Uncanny Valley aspect to it, with department stores and suburban homes needing to provide faux snow for their tableaux (an irony observed by Annie Hall herself). Trancers goes further than that, however, especially in an early scene where Leena, working as an elf for a mall Santa Claus, is followed by Jack to her job, only for him to discover that the mall Santa is a Trancer. Jack and “Santa’s” ensuing fight to the death is witnessed by several traumatized children, one of whom observes in a choked-off voice, “He shot Santa Claus.”
Later, Jack and Lena attend a concert where a punk band thrashes through “Jingle Bells,” Leena gives Jack a gift of a “Future Man” robot toy, and the pair encounter “three wise men” — really three homeless men — on their search for the last council member’s ancestor. Just as in the Christmas action movies that followed, Trancers takes the traditions, tropes and history of Christmas and twists them, allowing a little counterintuitive darkness into the holiday’s saccharine reputation while reinforcing its positivity.
Christmas is a cumulative holiday, arriving at the end of the calendar year, and that (plus its undeniably disproportionate reputation in relation to other holidays) makes its celebration feel like it comes with heightened stakes. The Christmas action movie exploits that latent psychology and translates the pressures of family interactions, travel, present shopping and food baking into literal life-and-death – or should I say life-and-Deth – situations. In this way, they and their holiday horror brethren are the most honest Christmas films, cutting through the syrupy goodwill and cheer by acknowledging the stress of the holiday and the weight of the end of another year. Just because Trancers depicts Santa getting murdered and an L.A. filled with killer zombie cops doesn’t mean it tosses aside the transformative power of Christmas: by the end of Jack Deth’s adventure through time, the future has been saved, love has bloomed, and a prodigal new baby known as the Christmas action movie has been born.