Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Is Troll 2 Really The BEST WORST MOVIE ...? Is Nilbog "Goblin" Spelled Backwards?


- This past October, some friends and I gathered for my annual Halloween Horror Movie marathon, and the breakout hit of the night was undoubtedly a little movie known as TROLL 2. I had heard rumblings about Troll 2 over the years, but in general, I'm not a person who enjoys wasting time watching a lot of crappy movies. I know there is a whole contingent who likes nothing better than semi-ironically watching bad films, but to me there are way too many great films I haven't seen to spend time with the bad ones. Still, there are bad movies, and there are bad movies. And Troll 2 is that special kind of bad. Not half-hearted, not mediocre ... but so earth-shatteringly, mind-blowingly bad that you end up laughing your ass off at the sheer lunacy of what's being presented onscreen. Most of the time, movies that suck do so because they just don't try that hard - they lack vision. But Troll 2 is different, in that it's so weird, so out-there, that you know someone had to believe that they were telling a great story. The movie just has so much misguided conviction that it's absurd, and yet that same unironic conviction is what makes it so freaking hilarious. What other movie would treat the revelation that the name Nilbog is "goblin spelled backwards!" with so much weight and pseudo-gravitas? Troll 2 was, if nothing else, unique.

At some point while watching Troll 2, you have to stop for a second and wonder: how did this - how did *this* - come to be? In a way, you almost don't want to know, because knowing would potentially detract from the movie's aura of mystery and wonder. I mean, there are so many things about Troll 2 that simply don't add up. It's like some kind of movie made by space aliens that was intended as a failed approximation of earth movies. It's just gloriously %#&$'ed up.

And yet ... ever since I saw Troll 2 in October, I've been dying to watch BEST WORST MOVIE. I had heard good things about this documentary looking at the good, the bad, and the ugly of Troll 2. But I was also just incredibly curious to hear someone explain how or why this movie was made. I finally got around to watching the movie over New Year's weekend, and I have to say - it likely would have found a spot on my year-end Best-Of list had I seen it earlier.

Best Worst Movie does give some insight into the film's creation - it was made by Michael Stephenson, who as a young kid played the overactive boy at the center of Troll 2. But what really surprised me about it is the human story at its center. Because this is a movie about Troll 2, sure, but it's also a shockingly insightful examination of the evolution of a cult movie and the people involved with in its production. It's a movie about fandom. It's a movie about living out your dreams and resigning yourself to a less glamorous life than you might have imagined. It's a movie about irony as humor and the generation and culture gap that its rise has created. Again though, the movie comes back to being about people, and the star of the movie is George Hardy.

George Hardy is a dentist in a small town in Alabama. He's a well-respected professional, a doting father to a teenage daughter, and he makes a good living. Everyone likes him - even his ex-wife can't think of a single bad thing to say about him. But there's something else about George, something that some people in his small town have heard mention of, but few fully grasp: in 1989, George starred in Troll 2. Not only did he star as the patriarch of the movie's nuclear family, but he uttered some of the most hilariously awful lines in movie history. His straightforward delivery of the line "don't piss on humility!" is in itself a hall-of-shame-worthy bit of dialogue. Here's the thing though - for a long time, starring in Troll 2 was just a funny, mostly-forgettable thing that George did back when he thought he might have a real shot at an acting career. But now, over twenty years later, Troll 2 has become a cult phenomenon, and George, though he's barely realized it yet, has become an unlikely cult icon.

The central throughline of Best Worst Movie follows George as he, along with the doc's director Michael Stephenson, decides to participate in the growing cult movement around Troll 2. Because as Best Worst Movie documents, Troll 2 has become a midnight movie staple across the country and beyond. Wherever hipsters and film geeks gather - New York, Austin, Toronto, LA - so too is there a bonafide cult of Troll 2. Midnight movie screenings are held, Troll 2 parties are thrown, the Alamo Drafthouse even does a rolling roadshow event in which Nilbog - the fictional, goblin-infested town in the movie - is recreated in the small Utah village where the film was shot. As he travels to these events, George is given rockstar-like ovations, and his winning personality makes him a hit with the fans. While some of the other participating cast-members seem to participate in all of the screenings and parties pretty reluctantly, George embraces it and has fun. He's well aware that the movie is terrible, and is very much able to joke about it, reciting his bad lines from the movie in front of crowds with good-natured relish.

But George is such a great character because beneath the happy-go-lucky exterior there is a real depth to him. As time goes on, George never stops smiling, but it's clear that all of the Troll 2 stuff eventually becomes a reminder of the acting career he never had. As George begins going to sci-fi and horror conventions and seeing all sorts of has-been, never-were D-list celebrities, he more and more begins to appreciate the life he's built for himself in Alabama. It's a great, even poignant story - certainly for anyone who's ever debated the relative merits of pursuing their creative dreams versus settling for something less glamorous but more stable. What's also interesting is how most of the members of George's traditional Alabama community just don't understand what makes Troll 2 the "best worst movie." One of the doc's most fascinating yet cringe-worthy sequences involves George throwing a charity screening of Troll 2 in his hometown. He goes door to door to invite people to come, he tells his patients to attend ... and the crowd that shows up - because they all love George - is a quaint group of elderly church-going types, local yokels, etc. They are all just utterly bewildered by Troll 2, and George's attempts to get them to view it ironically, as a hilarious comedy, like the hipsters in Austin did, is telling. For anyone who's ever wondered why middle-America loves Leno so much but doesn't get Conan - well, here's exhibit A. It's educational but also sort of heartbreaking, because as much as George wants to enthusiastically share his status as a cult icon with his family and friends, there's just too much of a cultural gap to really do it.

But where Best Worst Movie can get pretty dark is when it turns its attention towards some of the other people involved in the making of Troll 2. Whereas George can leave his small-town lifestyle and enjoy himself as he embarks on this crazy journey into cult-movie-fandom, most of his Troll 2 costars are a much sadder lot. The woman who once played Stephenson's spunky teen sister is still a struggling actress who debates whether or not to put Troll 2 on her resume. The guy who played the grandpa lives alone in a junk-filled house that looks like something out of hoarders. The guy who played Nilbog's creepy general store owner has struggled with drug addiction and mental illness, and admits that most of his lines in Troll 2 were delivered while under some very mind-altering influences. Most disturbing of all is the woman who played George's wife in Troll 2. She lives in an isolated, run-down house in Utah, with her elderly mother, and seems to be half-crazy, half-delusional. She talks about Troll 2 like it was a legitimate classic, just raving about the film, even as George and Michael wonder what the hell she's talking about.

Another guy who refuses to admit that Troll 2 is horrible - it's director, an Italian guy named Claudio Fragasso. He really believes (or has convinced himself) that it's this deep, artistic message movie. Same goes for his wife - and the movie's writer (er, "writer"), Rossella Drudi. It's darkly funny to watch Claudio as he attends his first big fan screening of Troll 2. He is positively wowed by all of the screaming fans in Troll 2 T-shirts, floored by the enthusiasm. He really thinks that they love the movie at face value. It's only after he realizes that the fans are laughing hysterically throughout the entirety of the movie that he begins to catch on that his whacked-out film has become one giant punchline. In subsequent screenings, Claudio starts blasting the movie's actors on-camera, he thinks they're ungrateful and calls them "dogs." He maintains that he's made a great film - although at one point, he does admit that even if Troll 2 is the worst movie ever made, well, at least people are talking about it.

And I guess that's what Best Worst Movie is all about - holding on to false dreams while coming to terms with reality. Who would have thought that a documentary about Troll 2 would end up tackling such big ideas? But somehow, that's exactly what it does, and Michael Stephenson deserves a lot of credit for weaving together these various characters and story arcs into something so fascinating, funny, and moving. Is there honor in being the worst? Is there shame in grasping for one's dream, even if it means clinging to the small cult following of a terrible, twenty-year-old movie? Is there any real answer as to why a movie called Troll 2 contains neither any references to Troll 1 nor any mention of trolls? The world may never know.

My Grade: A-


  1. The dad's line is actually "you can't piss on hospitality"- but everything else in this post was right on! And I'm halfway through Best Worst Movie right now.