Troll 2 Directed by Claudio Fragasso
Best Worst Movie Directed by Michael Paul Stevenson
Nobody knows the troubled movies I’ve seen. In the past eight years I’ve reviewed over 2,000 releases for the Reader, and at least half of them were bad. If we assume an average running time of 90 minutes, then since 2002 I’ve spent some 1,500 hours watching bad movies. For that reason I’m relatively immune to the blandishments of midnight-movie fans claiming that some egregious turkey, be it The Apple or The Room or Xanadu or The Terror of Tiny Town or Plan 9 From Outer Space, is “so bad it’s good.” Life is short—given the choice, I’d rather watch something so good it’s good. I’ve yet to come across a movie so good it’s bad.
The so-bad-it’s-good phenomenon has always struck me as disingenuous anyway, a hipper-than-thou version of the ritual humiliations we all remember from grade school. Tommy Wiseau, the clueless writer-director of The Room (2003), may bask in applause at a midnight screening, but what’s happening isn’t much different from the cool kids in class patronizing the mentally challenged kid for laughs. When people rave about a movie so bad it’s good (a common pose is to announce ironically that it’s “the greatest film of all time”), all they’re really doing is asserting their own superiority, not just to the movie but to the valuation of movies. Rebellion seldom comes any cheaper.
There’s also an element of empty spectacle at work here. The movies singled out for attention aren’t really the worst of the worst—those movies are so affectless they fade from memory immediately—but the movies that are bad in the most spectacular manner. Can it be a complete coincidence that The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), the first bad movie to find an adoring cult audience, came out three months after Jaws, the movie that established the template for the mindless summer blockbuster? When kids are ten, they turn out at the multiplex to see cars and planes and helicopters crash and burn; when they’re 20, they turn out at the midnight show to see the entire movie crash and burn.
Troll 2 (1990) was once rated the worst movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database, though any online ranking is highly fluid and the movie has since sunk (or risen, I guess) to 65th worst, outclassed by such delights as Son of the Mask (number 61) Furry Vengeance (43), From Justin to Kelly (22), Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2 (2), and the current reigning champion, Night Train to Mundo Fine. That’s a pretty steep fall, but none of those other movies has ever been honored (or disgraced, I guess) with its own documentary. Best Worst Movie, which opens Friday at the Music Box, explores the cult surrounding Troll 2 and catches up with some of the actors who were unlucky enough to appear in it.
A cheapo Italian production, shot in Utah with an inexperienced American cast, Troll 2 was originally called “Goblins,” but when it went straight to video the title was changed to capitalize on the release of Troll (1986), a completely unrelated horror flick. In Troll 2 a couple and their two kids, vacationing in a remote town, are harassed by hideous goblins from a nearby forest. Living in an abandoned church at the edge of this forest, a crafty witch assists the goblins by dispensing to unsuspecting visitors and gullible newcomers in the community a magical potion that turns them into giant plants and sometimes (but not always, story logic being in short supply) breaks them down into green goo that the goblins slurp up for their dinner.
There are enough phony superlatives in movie criticism already, so I won’t add to them by calling Troll 2 the worst movie of all time (I’m not about to do the research required for an authoritative statement). I won’t even call it the worst movie I’ve ever seen (that distinction goes to Marc Fienberg’s 2008 sex comedy Play the Game, starring Andy Griffith). But rest assured that Troll 2 is bad. Very, very bad. The script is stupid, the acting is wooden, the special effects are laughable, the vintage-80s synthesizer score is cheesy. The movie’s paranoid premise is boiled down from two superior sci-fi movies, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Day of the Triffids (1962). And there are no trolls.
Michael Paul Stephenson, who played the younger of the two kids back in 1989, hasn’t exactly taken the movie business by storm since then, and as the director of Best Worst Movie, he mostly tries to validate and enlarge the Troll 2 cult. He wisely centers the documentary not on himself but on genial George Hardy, who played his father in the movie and now enjoys an idyllic life as a popular dentist in Alexander City, Alabama. “He’s so sincere, he’s so genuine,” San Francisco movie programmer Jesse H. Ficks tells Stephenson. “He’s exactly why we love Troll 2.” Whether or not that sincerity redeems Troll 2, it certainly redeems Best Worst Movie. For the most part, the reunited actors are delighted to have found the spotlight at long last, even by this circuitous route, and in their humility they’re much more likable than the ironic fans greeting them at theaters.
But as in any cult, there’s a fair amount of mind control going on here. “Everyone had to become obsessed with it—we brainwashed them into it,” Ficks explains. The most uncomfortable scenes in Best Worst Movie show Hardy attending a sci-fi/fantasy convention in Birmingham, England, where no one knows Troll 2, and a horror convention in Dallas, where no one cares. His awkward attempts to explain the movie’s appeal and act out its most ridiculous scenes are met with polite laughter and blank stares. Eventually the embarrassment of trying to sell this dubious experience to the uninitiated gets to him, and in Dallas he retreats into a sulk. “Tons of gingivitis,” he observes, surveying the convention hall. “I guarantee you, only about 5 percent of these people floss their teeth on a daily basis.”
Watching Best Worst Movie, you can’t help but notice that the Troll 2 crowd consists almost exclusively of people in their 20s, which makes perfect sense: manufacturing an obsession with a terrible movie probably seems more worthwhile if you think you’ve got all the time in the world. When Hardy organizes a benefit screening in his hometown, his middle-aged friends and neighbors are more indulgent than enthusiastic, and when he and Stephenson manage to track down their old costar Margo Prey, now caring for her elderly mother in Salt Lake City, the old woman couldn’t be less happy to have these people in her house, restaging a ludicrous scene from the movie.
In that respect, the needle that really pops the balloon of Best Worst Movie is when Stephenson tracks down Robert Ormsby, who played his grandfather in Troll 2. “Mostly I’ve wasted my life,” the old man confesses, noting that he has no children or grandchildren. “I always thought I had potential, but I never did use it. More or less, I’ve frittered my life away. But then, what else is there to do with a life but fritter it away?”
There’s plenty to do, but first you have to quit watching shit like Troll 2.