[14 November 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Andy Warhol was wrong. Thanks to the Internet and its ravenous need for content, that so-called “15 minutes of fame” doled out to each and every person on the planet can now be extended by hours, years, or more commonly, generations. Long forgotten items, people, places, or phenomenons can easily be resurrected, their durability only as tested as their mangled Messageboard meaning. Take the tepid Troll 2, a not-really sequel to the equally atrocious Albert Band produced idiocy from 1986. When Italian director Claudio Fragasso, a famed conjuror of Italian sexploitation, came to the US to helm this quickie cash-in, he brought along a supposedly serious script “about family, love, and death” and a cast of quasi-capable unknowns to his remote Utah location. The results have gone down in the annals of IMDb infamy as “the worst movie ever made.”
And with good reason. It’s rather difficult to find the fun in Troll 2. For anyone whose seen the sloppy, eco-vegan goofball romp, the notion of herbivore imps in the small burg of Nil-Bog (get it?) turning people into plants so they can then chow down on them is exceptionally dopey. The standard “family in distress” element plays directly into the hackneyed hands of every genre cliche, and the overall approach is a surreal juxtaposition between no budget cinema schlock and the high minded preaching of its Mediterranean maestro. For some it might be a guilty pleasure. For many, it’s a pointless rip-off, a ‘so bad it’s embarrassing’ mess that few outside the participant’s relatives could wholly embrace.
Yet as with many things in the cult of continuing video viability, the re-titled Goblins (get it now?!?) has been given a second life by the film equivalent of the boho-hipster, praised and coveted like tickets to a Phish reunion concert. Critics have even joined in on the jerryrigging, calling the reinvention of Troll 2 “The Rocky Horror Picture Show for the Facebook era.” While some may question the fanboy resurrection of this artistically sparse effort, none can argue with the brilliant documentary made about the subject. Helmed by Michael Stephenson, the former child star who actually appeared in the original film (and is willing to admit it), Best Worst Movie covers a lot of ground. Some of its is purely nostalgic. But when it gets down to the nitty gritty of the personalities involved, a proposed backstage glimpse at a supposedly forgotten flop turns into another cinematic creature all together- one that’s fascinating, funny, and sometimes rather frightening.
On the scary side of things is Fragasso himself. Along with wife and creative partner Rossella Drudi, he argues about the film’s earnest and “intelligent” subtext, suggesting that his vision was too forward thinking for a 1990 audience. Indeed, he chalks up the resurgence of Troll 2 not to post-millennial irony run amuck, but a deep appreciation for his masterful, well meaning message. As he becomes part of the process, as he joins the rest of the reunion for screenings and Q&A sit downs, Fragasso starts to doubt his own conclusions. Before long, he turns belligerent, arguing with the actors as they address friendly fan inquiries and yelling relentlessly during supposed cheery nostalgic scene recreations. He eventually labels everyone “dogs”, inconsiderate of his place in this weird multimedia pecking order.
Equally frightening is the mid-act appearance of sole holdout actress Margo Prey. All throughout the first half of the Best Worst Movie, as Stephenson follows wannabe star turned sunny Southern dentist Dr. George Hardy as he discovers the Troll 2 fanaticism sweeping the globe, we wonder about his co-star. We see sons and daughters, ancillary characters and supporting players - and yet no Margo. Once the film finally catches up with her, the reasons for her exile become painfully obvious. Though simple observation would argue for someone whose clearly lost touch with reality (he comments about the ‘noisy neighborhood’ still send shivers down one’s spine), having to care for a clearly infirmed and elderly mother mandates a slight reconsideration. Even when it looks like everyone else will appear at a local Alamo Drafthouse salute to the cast and crew, Margo makes it very clear she will not be attending.
At least we have the ever-present buoyancy of Dr. Hardy to keep us smiling. A former cheerleader in college and a beloved social fixture in his small Alabama hometown, he’s the necessary narrative arc of Best Worst Movie, a naive novice to the entire Troll 2 ‘happening ’ who goes from active and willing participant to jaded and slightly sullied cynic in the span of 90 amazing minutes. While his beaming personality is never quite dimmed, Dr. Hardy does learn a few hard geek life lessons along the way. He discovers that, sometimes, the audience is laughing at him, not with him. He realizes that part of the movie’s cultural significance has something to do with how awful the faithful think his performance is. And during one especially hilarious horror convention sequence, he’s alarmed to realize that many of his proposed sect have severe gingivitis.
When Best Worst Movie stays with Stephenson (who is seen onscreen as well as sitting in the director’s chair) and Hardy, it’s a solid celebration. For every former cast member who finds fault with everything the experience stands/stood for, these two tend to embrace the shame and move on. The determined dentist has a personality like crack - it’s addictive, yet dangerous. He too falls under the spell of what’s being sold, only to discover that things don’t look campy from the inside out. By the end, while still eager to work on a Troll 3 if called upon, he’d done with being the cult’s poster boy. He loves his life in the genial, gentile far too much to get lost in the quick fad gadgetry of such nu-media madness. While the spark remains, a tour of duty with Stephenson has cured his original optimistic wanderlust.
As with many unknown or under the radar stories, the tale behind Best Worst Movie is mesmerizing. We instantly fall into backyard fencepost gossip mode, leaning over the screen and drinking in every dishy, dirty detail. As Fragasso moves through the running time playing the pooper that every party needs, as Margo Prey’s painted face belies a serious set of “Helter Skelter” eyes, we start to see the truth behind all the website hype. While we like to think of movies as the exclusive playground of larger than life stars, there are hundreds of films forged by everyday people with dreams - dreams that are realized, retrofitted, or in most cases, deferred. Everybody involved here, no matter what they now say in humorously humiliated retrospect, believed that Troll 2 was going to be good. Or at the very least, watchable. Twenty years ago, the realization that it wasn’t meant an afterlife as filmic footnote. Thanks to the world wired web, and Best Worst Movie, it’s the stuff of satiric sacred cows.