Early Wednesday morning, finding myself in my usual sleepless state, I was trolling (ha) around on Netflix to find something to watch. Netflix’s streaming service is one of the greatest boons to the insomniac, and I find myself turning to it often these days to make the long hours of the night fly past a bit more quickly.
My gaze rested upon a documentary, “Best Worst Movie.” Intrigued by the terrible title, I checked out the description, which essentially stated the film planned to examine how a truly bad movie was made and the processes that made it so. Intrigued, I clicked on it, and found an unexpected gem, like “Waiting for Guffman,” for those who’ve seen that Christopher Guest mockumentary, but profoundly, painfully real.
The film is about the making of — and aftermath of— 1990′s “Troll 2,” apparently considered the worst film ever made. An American production conceived by an Italian director and his screenwriter wife, it has earned a lasting legacy because of its terrible acting, dimestore effects, incoherent storyline and unintentionally hilarious tone. In the course of “Best Worst,” it’s referred to as the “MySpace Generation’s ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show,’” and that now somewhat-dated reference aside, it’s easy to see that the fandom that has built up around the picture is remarkably similar to that ever-popular piece of horror/musical camp.
What I didn’t expect going in was to fall in love with “Troll 2′s” ill-starred cast members, at the time of this filming 17 years removed from the infamous flop. And little did I know I was about to fall into a similar sort of hatred for for the film’s director, Claudio Fragasso, who still believes he’s crafted a masterpiece for the ages and refers to the actors throughout as ungrateful “dogs” unable to comprehend his wife’s artistic vision.
His wife, credited as Rossella Drudi, seems equally clueless, convinced she has crafted some sort of deep meditation on any number of classic themes. Like her husband, she seems utterly ill-equipped to understand the true terror of what she has wrought.
The plot of “Troll 2,” which I have not yet seen, apparently has something to do with a family going on vacation, finding themselves among the familiar town of strangers, and then finding out said strangers are actually goblins that are … strict vegetarians. (Drudi says that she wrote the movie because many of her friends at the time were becoming vegetarians — something she said “pissed me off.”)
In order to eat our heroes, which of course is the creatures’ goal, the goblins — no trolls are ever featured in the film — try to get the family and other victims to ingest some special concoction that transforms them into plants. There’s the ghost of a dead grandfather, seduction via an ear of corn, and even more strangeness thrown into the mix, judging from the few snippets of the actual film we get to see. It’s an incoherent mess that ends up being a laugh-a-minute, something even most of the actors involved now agree upon.
In “Best Worst Movie,” we first meet George Hardy, a hard-working, if somewhat eccentric, small-town dentist from Alexander City, Ala. — and the unfortunate sap cast as the father in “Troll 2.”
Hardy, beloved by his community, is shown to be an affably weird, genuinely likable sort. He starts out every day with a breakfast shake he throws together with whatever he’s got on hand in the fridge and regularly makes a public spectacle of himself rollerskating in various ill-conceived “fat suit” costumes in the hometown holiday parade. He’s also a dedicated dentist, seems to have a great relationship with his office staff, regularly offers free dental work to area schoolchildren in need, and seems, when we first meet him, to be trying have a good life and to forget making “Troll 2.”
But Michael Stephenson, who plays Hardy’s son in the film, has other ideas. It seems the movie has become something of a cult classic — groups gather regularly to watch it and guffaw, friends of friends pass down worn VHS copies to unsuspecting victims, and hardcore fans wear in-jokey t-shirts and engage in craft projects to “recreate” the oh-so special special effects. Stephenson, now grown up, wants to document all of this, a sort of catharsis and celebration. Thus, “Best Worst Movie” is born, with Hardy, Stephenson and other cast members playing our guides into the improbable world of “Troll 2″ fandom.
Throughout the film, cast members appear as guests at midnight movie-style showings of “Troll 2,” finding themselves unwitting celebrities. There’s an unexpected warmth to all of this, especially in the beginning scenes involving Hardy. The dentist finds himself emotionally embraced by audiences that seem to genuinely love him, some fans literally trembling in his presence as he signs t-shirts, promotional photos, etc. To their credit, Stephenson and Hardy, along with certain other actors, seem to genuinely appreciate the joke the film is and has become— although Hardy, unaccustomed to any degree of celebrity beyond that previously earned as a hometown ham, does start to take his new-found fame a bit too seriously in latter scenes, until an inevitable fall causes his humility to come crashing down.
The further the documentary travels from the dedicated fan base that inspired it, the more devastating the “Troll 2″ picture becomes. Cast members find themselves virtual outcasts, rather than cult movie heroes, at more “mainstream” fan conventions, and it soon becomes clear that the movie has left a share of truly broken people in its wake.
One feels genuine sympathy, for example, for the aging Robert Ormsby, who played Stephenson’s ghostly grandfather. He sits among stacks of clutter in a crumbling home, gazes wistfully at a photo of himself as a young man, and wonders aloud if he’s wasted his life.
Equally devastating is our introduction to Margo Prey, who plays Hardy’s wife and Stephenson’s mother. Eyes wandering and lost, obviously troubled, she takes care of her elderly mother and wishes for the power to somehow just go away and never be seen again.
And then there is wild, eyed, wild-haired Don Packard, who played a diabolical store clerk. Actually institutionalized when he made the film, let out on day passes to shoot, even he notes the obvious madness in his eyes in clips from “Troll 2.”
“I wasn’t acting,” he opines. We believe him.
Hubris enters the scene with Fragasso and Drudi. The director finds it completely comprehensible that this strange little film has finally found an audience, but the auteur finds it utterly bewildering to watch said audience during fan screenings. He doesn’t understand why they’re always laughing, even at the parts that aren’t funny. And Fragasso flies into absolute rage later when the actors openly talk with audience members about how terrible their experience was.
An almost insurmountable language barrier, and Fragasso’s insistence that the script be delivered exactly as written, frustrated the actors, who genuinely tried to fix some of the howl-inducing dialogue but were rebuffed at every turn — the director insisting, among other things, that he knew how American teenagers talked. The end result is some of the worst spoken lines in the history of film, accompanied by some of the worst acting, producing drivel such as this exchange between Holly, Stephenson’s sister in the film, played by actress Connie Young, and her boyfriend Elliot, played by Jason Wright:
Holly : Elliott! What kind of idiotic joke is this? You scared the shit out of me!
Elliott: [After sneaking into Holly's room] I’m the victim of a nocturnal rapture. I have to release my lowest instincts with a woman.
Holly: [Punches Elliott in the groin] Release your instincts in the bathroom.
Elliott: Are you nuts? You tryin’ to turn me into a homo?
Holly: Wouldn’t be too hard. If my father discovers you here, he’d cut off your little nuts and eat them. He can’t stand you.
Several scenes of “Best Worst” show Fragasso wandering the streets utterly furious while the actors deconstruct his movie bit by bit for eager fans. He makes a valid point or two, noting that none would have even their infamy if it wasn’t for him and his movie, but he fails time and time again to understand that audiences are now laughing with the actors — but still only laughing at him.
The greatest horror? All of the attention has prompted Fragasso and his wife to start penning a sequel. Its title? “Troll 2: Part 2.” We can hope that the world may yet be saved from such true terror. Perhaps the oncoming 2012 Apocalypse will be welcomed if it means we don’t have to sit through “T2:P2.”
Among the hardest scenes to watch, at least for me, are Hardy’s attempts to vault his minor celebrity into something genuinely good for his hometown. Accustomed to fan reactions by this point, he doesn’t understand why locals seem reluctant to come out and support his well-intentioned fundraiser, featuring a screening of “Troll 2,” which he by now gleefully embraces as “the worst movie ever made!”
The community’s matronly mayor and other small-town folk come out to dutifully support the dentist, and much to his relief he gets a good crowd. But the reactions he receives after the screening in no way match the joyful adulation that characterize the film’s most devoted fans. A forced handshake and a quick escape into the night seems to be the most common reaction from fellow Alexander City folk, and one can see the visible hurt on Hardy’s face.
The documentary ends on a fairly high note, its occasional tragedy counterbalanced by its inherent comedy and how much fans genuinely do seem to love “Troll 2.” Hardy seems to return home wiser, if a touch sadder, while we learn that many of the actors either recovered enough from the film to continue getting professional work or did fine with other careers. Ormsby, Prey and Packard remain devastating in their quiet pain, but the documentary ends with one feeling like one has simultaneously been in the company of friends and initiated into a secret world.
“Troll 2″ may or may not be the worst movie ever made, but it has earned a place in the heart of many thousands, perhaps millions. In one of his few moments of genuine insight, Fragasso notes that truly great movies produce great emotion in their viewers. If “Troll 2″ crafts an unwitting joy despite its horrific dialogue, inane plot and misguided acting, then perhaps it is “successful” by such a definition. By such a yardstick, even the worst film deserves an audience, if only to remind us of what greatness truly is, and when a film like “Troll 2″ comes along that genuinely falls into the “so bad it’s good” category, it’s an opportunity to meditate on what we want, and perhaps deserve, from cinema to begin with.
“Troll 2,” apparently, entertains, and that alone, perhaps, makes it successful enough.
I’m considering a local “Troll 2″ screening. Anyone want to venture into the dark side with me?