Ratings: 1/5, 4.5/5
“But they’re trolls daddy! Monstrous beings!” – Troll 2
“I was in a movie called Troll 2. It’s the worst film of all time.” – George Hardy, Best Worst Movie
Yesterday was a fairly epic day of movie watching – Movie Lottery was temporarily abandoned so that I could catch up on some PhD-specific viewing, and so I spent the day watching some of the most notorious bad movies. Troll 2, a relatively recent addition to the badfilm canon, seemed like a pretty good place to start; having languished on my shelves for a few years now, it’s embarrassing to admit that this was the first time I watched it.
I knew what to expect, of course – Troll 2 has a rather colourful reputation. If I had never heard of it, I’m pretty sure the DVD box would have helped prepare me. I bought this on Amazon, from a reputable seller, but still this is obviously a pirate copy; the cheaply printed cover features some grainy stills from the film itself, and no credit information whatsoever. It does, however, talk about the “Trolls, which are a particularly dangerous breed live [sic] in the woods” who disguise themselves as “peasents [sic].” Naturally, my curiosity was instantly piqued.
For those of you unfamiliar with the film’s infamy, this was a straight-to-video horror film, written by Italian Rossella Drudi and directed by her husband Claudio Fragasso. Filmed in Utah, it stars a bunch of unknowns, and tells the story of Joshua Waits (Michael Stephenson) and his family who go holidaying in a quaint little town called Nilbog. Joshua regularly converses with his (dead) grandfather, who warns him of goblins. Joshua’s teen sister’s on-off boyfriend and his “boys” follow the family to Nilbog, where all the villagers act rather strangely and keep trying to feed the newcomers unappetising green and white mush. Because, as the DVD box says, “the trolls are vegetarians… And the food would turn the Waits into Vegetables!!”
Recounting the plot in a film like this is generally rather irrelevant; no one is going to watch this expecting a nuanced narrative. We watch because the legend of the film precedes our experience of it – it is notoriously bad, so we expect it to be so. And Troll 2 does not disappoint: it is really terrible. The dialogue is particularly dire (although somewhat justified now that I know it was written by a non-English speaker) – just consider lines like this: “Grampa Seth has been gone for more than six months now. You were at the funeral, and I know it was very difficult for you. It was also very difficult for your father, and for Holly, and for me his daughter.” Yes, it efficiently establishes the family connections, but, really? “And for me his daughter”? Oh dear.
The acting is equally bad, though to be expected considering the general amateur status of those involved. Delivery ranges from hysterical to flat; the mother constantly has the look of a confused deer caught in headlights; the “boys” are dreadful; Joshua’s sister is a late 80s cliché, first introduced in a high-cut leotard lifting weights (just to prove her femininity?!), caught in a love-hate relationship with her dimwitted beau. The only character who offers any hint of authenticity is the town’s shopkeeper, a sinister man with a suspiciously limited selection and a severe distaste for eggs and bacon. There’s also, bizarrely, a substantial amount of homoerotic subtext – I’m sure somewhere, someone has done a queer reading of Troll 2, and it would be fascinating to read. Suffice to say now, just consider the relationship between the boyfriend and his boys, not to mention one of the aforementioned boys’ sexual encounter with the Goblin queen and her particularly phallic corn-on-the-cob. Meanwhile, the makeup is cheap, the story makes no sense, at one point a character inexplicably engages with genial conversation with the goblins, there are theological and pagan subplots involving fire-and-brimstone preachers and Stonehenge, people are routinely turned into pot plants, and the goblins (because there are no trolls here) are (apparently) defeated by a gently lobbed hamburger. It is a truly dreadful film.
So why has it gained such a dedicated and devoted audience? There are several factors. Troll 2 has become the “badfilm” of a generation, a film first shown on HBO and cherished by small audiences who claimed some kind of ownership of the product. It gained popularity through word of mouth, rather than being a designated “cult classic” – it emerged out of nowhere, was not publicised, was barely even noticed by most. Yet unlike the older bad classics like Plan 9 From Outer Space, visually it is familiar – it’s in colour, it’s fairly modern; Troll 2 lacks the kitsch appeal of the older movies that can be used to justify their badness. Here, the (almost) contemporary setting is just recent enough for audiences to recognise, appreciate, and decry. We know the calibre of films of the time, and this falls way below even the poorest offering.
Crucial, of course, is its badness. Troll 2 does not just fail on one level; it fails on all of them. It is delirious and deluded, and utterly demented – the story is preposterous, the acting appalling, the props and effects sub-par. Yet it manages to be consistently entertaining – we stare open-mouthed in disbelief yet are never bored. It is, then, one of these cult films described as “so bad it’s good,” an exceedingly problematic term. It’s not good, that’s precisely its appeal. Instead, I would suggest “so bad it’s pleasurable” as a more appropriate term: we recognise and appreciate the complete and utter failure of the film, and are entertained as a result. Is it the worst film of all time? At one point, IMDB voters designated it as such; today it barely scrapes in at 100th place in the Bottom 100. Personally, it sits alongside Children of the Living Dead, which, in my mind was at least as bad and just as pleasurable.
In contrast, Best Worst Movie is fascinating – subtly insightful, poignant, engaging and very interesting. This is Michael Stephenson’s documentary charting the subsequent cult status of Troll 2, and it’s rather ironic that the bratty child star of that movie has so successfully created such a professional, eloquent film himself. Unusually, it is not Stephenson who is the main attraction this time around, but George Hardy, the father. Hardy is a likeable man with a constant smile on his face and a general vitality. He’s also a dentist.
Best Worst Movie attempts to reunite all the main stars of Troll 2, while following the film’s newfound popularity from small viewing parties to packed out cinema events. Initially, at least, Hardy and Stephenson are amazed at the film’s cult status, and they embrace the attention. Hardy joyfully repeats his most famous line, “You can’t piss on hospitality! I won’t allow it!” over and over, and rather than be embarrassed about his role, he delights in telling anyone who’ll listen that he was in the “worst film of all time.” For those who embrace the badness, it’s a particularly entertaining and unexpected stardom.
Not all the cast, however, have such well-adjusted lives. Margo Prey (the mother) has become a virtual recluse, locked away in her unwelcoming home caring for her elderly mum – her brief appearance in the documentary suggests a troubled and fragile person, and this is particularly enlightening considering my previous comments regarding her performance. Similarly, the shopkeeper, who I also discussed as being the only successfully sinister character, discusses his mental health issues at the time of filming, saying his performance was creepy because he was, at the time, a very troubled man.
Reputations and cult status really benefits from this kind of insight, and the interviews with these cast members reinforces one of the frequently discussed reasons for badfilm appreciation – that through the failure it is possible to witness something very authentic and genuine. Unlike “good” movies that disguise or conceal their manufactured nature, badfilms cannot hide, and everything becomes real, in a sense. Working in tandem with this concept is the idea that the film can be perceived as genuine in its intentions – as one of the fans remarks, there is no sense of irony present in Troll 2. Again, Best Worst Movie offers some particularly intriguing implications regarding the tension present in this “worst film of all time” status. This tension is most evident in discussions with the film’s director and writer – a married team who appear to truly believe what they have made is not only good, but profound in some way. Whereas the majority of the cast have embraced their cult status, Fragasso – much like The Room‘s Tommy Wiseau – evidently does not appreciate the constant laughter emanating from the audience of his mini-masterpiece. He frequently describes the actors as “dogs”, and is confrontational and argumentative in Q&A sessions. Yet what does the audience expect? If he embraces his film as bad, surely some of the cult appeal is lost. Better he remains blissfully ignorant and steadfast in his belief that Troll 2 is good.
The tension continues as Troll 2‘s cast – Stephenson and Hardy primarily – begin to lose their bearings. Whereas the sold-out screenings emerged rather organically, they start to force Troll 2 on the public, and their misguided, yet likeable, enthusiasm for the film’s popularity becomes all too clear when they find themselves among other areas of “cult” fandom – horror conventions and memorabilia shows sharply bring them back to Earth. Because cult is a tricky thing, and there are many layers of what makes something cult, and who is involved with that claim.
Apologies for the length of this post – generally I would try to keep it short. This double bill has provided many areas of interest, however. Troll 2 (and Best Worst Movie) offers badfilm theorists a wealth of information, due in large part to the fact that there is little information available about many of the older bad cult classics; most of the people involved were dead before the cult affiliation developed. Watching Troll 2 is a great experience, and it genuinely feels far more authentic than, say, the more consumer-driven output of the SyFy channel. It’s a terrible film – perhaps not the worst ever, but fully deserving of the title “badfilm”. In contrast, Best Worst Movie is eloquent and well judged, offering some valuable insights into the various tensions and stresses that result in unintentionally creating a crap masterpiece.