Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Bonus Review: Troll 2 and Best Worst Movie

by Jason Pyles

If you love unusual movies and you haven't seen the infamous "Troll 2"
(1990) yet, then you need to go watch it free on Hulu.com. It has been called the "best worst movie," but for my money, the best worst movie is still "Killer Klowns From Outer Space" (1988). (It's presently available on Netflix Watch
Instantly; there's no excuse not to watch "Killer Klowns.") And then there's
always "Monkey Shines" (1988), which is also notable, but not nearly as entertaining as the
aforementioned pair. "Troll 2," which doesn't have one troll in it, is about a family who is terrorized by a gaggle of vegetarian goblins. And since the goblins don't eat meat, they have
to trick humans into eating their specially prepared foods, which transform the victims into plants that can therefore be eaten. Now, you have to admit, that's pretty original material. (The luring victims to eat repeatedly becomes awkward and tiresome, however — not an easy plot for the screenwriters to sustain; to see an equally difficult writing challenge handled much more effectively, watch "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer." That killer was a big "smeller.")

Hence the charm of "Troll 2." Even though the performances, writing, special effects, costumes (and everything else) are poorly executed, the movie is so odd and so bizarre that it defies the typical criteria that constitute entertainment value as we know it. It's no wonder people love "Troll 2." It is truly one of the most unusual films I've ever seen — and I've seen some unusual ones. "Troll 2" is like an unsettling dream. I must admit that it does have a few moments that almost border on creepy. And that's a compliment because this is somehow accomplished in the midst of its wacky weirdness and unintentional humor.

On May 28 I had the pleasure of attending the Tower Theater in Salt Lake City for a screening of "Best Worst Movie," a documentary by Michael Stephenson — the now-grown little boy, Joshua Waits, who starred as the protagonist of "Troll 2." In case you don't know, here's the story, as I understand it, behind "Best Worst Movie":

"Troll 2" was filmed in Utah in 1989 under a different title, probably "Nil Bog," which is "goblin" spelled backward. (I'm sure some fanboy will inform me.) Nothing seemed to come of the production until, in the early '90s, little by little, the actors started seeing their B-movie on cable channels or hearing about it from friends. Because it is so poorly made, most of the actors — including a young Michael Stephenson — were ashamed of it. Years passed and while the actors tried to forget about it, their cinematic mistake became a cult phenomenon. "Best Worst Movie" is the hilarious documentation of this film's cult popularity, its fans and its filmic associates.

I hadn't yet seen "Troll 2" before seeing the documentary, but it wasn't altogether necessary, because many clips from the original movie are interspersed throughout the documentary. I recommend seeing both films, in any order. They're both entertaining and enjoyable.

"Best Worst Movie" is oddly humorous and simultaneously sad. It strikes a similarly bizarre emotional chord, much like its inspiration. The Italian director of "Troll 2," Claudio Fragasso, steals the show through his apparent high regard for the artistic merits of his film — at one point comparing it to "Casablanca" and "Gone With the Wind." We learn that his wife, Rossella Drudi, co-wrote the screenplay with him, and the vegetarian-goblins idea came from her having friends who were vegetarians, and her script was meant to poke at them a little.

At my screening, I was lucky enough to enjoy a Q&A afterward with five members of the cast of "Troll 2," including Michael Stephenson (Josh), Jason Steadman (Drew), Gavin Reed (the Present son who threw the baseball), Deborah Reed (Creedence Leonore Gielgud) and Darren Ewing (Arnold).

From their Q&A I found out that the mind-blowingly bizarre film the friends are watching in the motor home is a terrible Italian film called "Grunt!" (1983). At one point Michael said the director was asked why this was filmed in Utah: Michael said his answer was, "We didn't choose Utah; Utah chose us." The male actors listed above said they earned $100 a day on the shoot. The budget for "Troll 2" was $600,000, but Michael remembered complaining of having been given only stale pizza to eat. And the kid whose plant growth covers his mouth in the creepy church (I think it was Darren Ewing as Arnold), he was said to have stood (quite painfully) in that get-up for 14 hours while filming.

As I've learned about the filmmaking process, the creative and artistic differences and the challenges of financing a movie and so forth, I've often said it's a wonder when a movie is actually made. And I've said it's a miracle when a "good" movie is made.

Obviously, sometimes out of that horrific process comes a by-product that might be described as cinematic toxic sludge. It's ugly, but it's tantalizing. It's dim-witted, but it glows. It's filled with goblins, but it's called "Troll 2."

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