It’s impossible to find a film somebody, somewhere hasn’t felt the need to publicly proclaim “Worst Movie Ever.” Just what kind of brainiac might apply such a phrase to, say, Citizen Kane –oh yes they did–is a question you don’t want to mull over for too long. The reflexive stone tossing toward the supposedly boring, old-fashioned, simply mediocre or routinely dumb cheapens the fascinating and wonderful business of trying to figure out what really might be the Worst. Movie. Ever.
Of course that is a very subjective quest, one not leading to definitive resolution. (Although naturally every opinion ever expressed on the Internet Movie Database boards is definitive. And if you disagree, you are a big fat girly idiot who deserves my most scathing emoticon signoff!) But shouldn’t there be some standards for such an important designation? Being simply formulaic, credulity-strained, bombastic, etc., shouldn’t be enough–and that clears the field of most mainstream Hollywood product. Nor should simply having a low budget, inexperienced actors or poor craftsmanship, all very ordinary shortcomings. And certainly one shouldn’t consider intentionally campy movies of the Attack of the Killer Tomatoes or Troma type.
No, a world-class bad movie should be so out there you not only can’t believe what you’re seeing, but can’t quite figure out what the filmmakers attempting. Fitting that bill are such recent so-bad-they’re-brilliant finds as Tommy Wiseau’s The Room and the locally shot Birdemic. But, for many, the mother of all brain-scrambling cinematic boondoggles is Troll 2 –a movie whose many weaknesses (or strengths, as the case may be) begin with its having no relationship to Troll #1. Or to trolls, in fact. (However, there do be goblins.)
Made by Italians in rural Utah, Troll 2 bypassed theaters for cable in 1990, probably provoking “Must stop smoking so much pot!” impulses from several confused late-night viewers before disappearing from view. It would’ve stayed forgotten but for the gradual evolution of a cult following–the kind that memorizes favorite lines and does YouTube remakes of ‘specially “special” scenes.
Now there is Best Worst Movie, a documentary about the film and the phenomenon made by Michael Paul Stephenson, who is certainly qualified to walk the Troll 2 walk: He was its 11-year-old star.
In Troll 2, Stephenson plays Joshua Waits, an ordinary lad whose Grandpa enjoys (a little too much?) telling him scary bedtime stories. That’s not the problem: The problem is that Grandpa Seth has been dead six months. Actually, even that’s not the real problem (though Joshua’s parents are concerned about his “imaginary friend”). When the Waits family goes on vacation, they visit bucolic Nilbog, a crappy little town dead Grandpa knows is home to many evil, murderous goblins. They turn people into green vegetable-matter mush, then eat them. Joshua must save his unbelieving family. However, the friends of his sister’s tagalong boyfriend are pretty much toast. Whole grain toast, with spirulina spread.
Troll 2 is the rare movie that appears aimed at children while being entirely inappropriate for them. Its tone is often fairy-tale childish. Yet not many modern fairy tales feature a distressed child screaming “THEY’RE EATING MY MOM!!!” Because, indeed, “they” are.
It is difficult to convey the full bizarro-ness of Troll 2 –you simply have to see it. Perhaps again and again, like many of the besotted fans interviewed here. They go to midnight screenings where, occasionally, abashed participants from the original film discuss its creation. Even they don’t quite understand how it turned out so hilariously strange, or how something so embarrassing still has a life of its own 20 years later.
But Best Worst Movie is more than just an ode to a fantastically bad movie. It’s this year’s Anvil: A surprisingly layered and poignant documentary about something outwardly ridiculous.
Troll 2’s spectacular badness and its late-blooming, snark-flavored fame are experienced very differently by various people who’d once hung their hopes on it. Stephenson himself, thrilled by getting the juvenile lead but shamed once he saw the result, is now a quizzical adult observer to the fuss.
Those few among his costars who seriously pursued acting as a career consider it an unkind, undying joke at their own expense. They know they were horrible in Troll 2 –who wasn’t? –but should casting directors still judge their ability by a 20-year-old disaster? Those whose lives went in other directions are more bemusedly tolerant.
The film’s still-married Italian creative team of director Claudio Fragasso and scenarist Rossella Drudi remain astonishingly oblivious to its flaws. In fact, he observes camp-minded U.S. audiences with humorless disapproval, saying they must be “crazy.” He shouts down actors recalling his hapless direction as being, well, mere stupid actors. Troll 2’s other unironic defender here is the one major cast member who’d eluded fan-driven rediscovery until Stephenson did the detective work. I don’t want to spoil a key narrative development in Best Worst Movie –but suffice it to say this person turns out to be delusional and disturbingly isolated.
Which entirely contrasts with this doc’s real protagonist, small-town Alabama dentist George Hardy. Once upon a time, he dreamed of being an actor–though already a neophyte dental practitioner then located in Salt Lake City–and won the role of hero’s father in Troll 2. Further offers did not follow.
Hardy is now a strapping middle-aged fellow so outgoing and gregarious even his ex-wife can’t say anything bad about him. Delighted by his belated silly fame, he shows up at screenings to laugh along with audiences at his atrocious performance, then gamely takes the stage to karaoke favorite ludicrous lines. (And his character gets some of the absolute worst, including the immortal, “You can’t piss on hospitality! I won’t allow it!”)
He loves being the center of attention, and Troll 2 addicts love him like cats love catnip. It’s hard not to share the sentiment: Hardy seems a guileless charmer, and his endearing presence lends Best Worst Movie the heft of a unique nonfiction character portrait. It’s a weird kind of success story, how an alleged “undisputed worst movie ever” might ultimately serve to satisfy the class-clown exhibitionist needs of a small-town periodontist. But it’s an oddly beguiling one, nonetheless.
In conjunction with the documentary’s theatrical run, Troll 2 plays midnights at San Francisco’s Lumiere June 4 and 5. Michael Paul Stephenson and George Hardy will be present at screenings this opening weekend (Fri/4 at the Lumiere, SF; Sat/5 at the Shattuck, Berkeley).
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