‘Trollhunter’: The Challenges of Keeping a Giant Secret

[18 September 2011]

By Dan Heaton

Gaining popularity with The Blair Witch Project back in 1999, the found-footage trend has taken off thanks to box-office hits like Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity. Even TV shows like Sanctuary got in on the act and delivered a video tape shot by one of the characters. There have been many horror films created using this approach, but few have crossed over to reach a mass audience. The most recent example was Apollo 18, which didn’t gain much interest despite an aggressive marketing campaign. I’m no expert on this subject, but I do believe there are some intriguing possibilities within this medium.

An interesting example is the Norwegian film Trollhunter (Trolljegeren), which brings teenage students into close quarters with trolls while shooting a documentary. The opening text explains that their footage was sent anonymously, and what we see is a rough cut of the material. Their plan was to follow Hans (Otto Jespersen), who seems to be poaching bears deep within the forests. One night, they seem close to filming him in action, but the truth is something completely different. He sprints back to them screaming “TROLL!” as a loud, giant creature follows him. In reality, Hans is actually a troll hunter working for a secret government division to eliminate the trolls.

Troll hunting might seem like a lucrative profession since Hans plays a key role in preventing death and destruction. He also must keep a giant secret and explain away strange occurrences, which is no easy task. In essence, his job is more like a garbage man than a brave warrior saving the people. He takes down trolls with some inventive techniques and faces the nasty creatures with little fear. This is an old-school guy who performs his job with a singular focus that dominates his life. We only catch glimpses of his world outside the troll hunting, but it’s clear that Hans has given nearly everything to his unique profession.

On the other hand, the students — Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud), Johanna (Johanna Mørck), and Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen) — have idealized views about the trip. Even after encountering a troll, they innocently follow Hans and ignore the danger. They’re so focused on getting the footage that they don’t understand the destructive power of these animals. These kids also discount the threat of the government’s need to keep the existence of trolls a secret. The face of this bureaucracy is Finn Haugen (Hans Morton Hansen), and he has little patience for their claims to the videos. All signs point to a bad end for the trio, but they’re oblivious and still enjoying themselves. It’s easy to understand the allure of seeing the trolls, but they don’t seem awestruck by the experience. These teenagers don’t seem so intelligent.

Produced for an estimated $3.5 million (US), Trollhunter offers surprisingly believable effects, especially when we receive a clearer glimpse of the massive trolls. In similar fashion to Gareth Edwards’ Monsters, this movie shows the possibilities of believable digital effects without spending a fortune. The found-footage approach gives Director André Øvredal the chance to just offer glimpses of the trolls as they lurk outside of the frame. They can only appear at night, so it’s easier to avoid showing them clearly. However, the darkness also makes the technical achievements even more impressive. Øvredal uses clever tricks to limit the expense without making us realize he’s cutting corners. The excellent use of sound also sells the trolls’ intense power without presenting full-scale (and expensive) destruction.

Otto Jespersen is known in Norway as a controversial comedian who’s not afraid to tackle sensitive issues. He doesn’t seem like the best fit to play a grizzled troll hunter, but he completely sells the character. It’s too bad that the actors playing the students aren’t so successful. Tosterud spends the most time on camera, and he’s not an interesting character. We only see glimpses of Mørck and Larsen, but neither makes a significant impression. It’s not entirely the actors’ fault, though. Even though it’s found footage, we still need to make a connection with the people on screen. The focus in the screenplay is the trolls, and only Jespersen’s presence makes him an interesting character.

The DVD includes 23 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage that shows us practical effects that are used to create the trolls. For example, Jespersen did get the chance to hit an actual prop when he destroyed the troll frozen by the light. We also see actors goofing around while they wait to get on camera. This disc also contains five deleted scenes that provide about three minutes of extra material. There’s nothing too exciting and mostly cover the same territory. The disc also includes about two minutes of improv and bloopers, plus extended scenes covering another eight minutes.

The best inclusion is a breakdown of the digital effects separate and within the actual shot. Presenting computerized images and then placing them within the action really shows us the complexities of this style of filmmaking. The silent segments last about six minutes total and provide some fun details about the process. Finally, there’s a brief promotional featurette from HDNet that includes a mix of interviews and scenes from the movie.

Trollhunter has already been grabbed by Hollywood for a remake, which is quite an achievement for the modestly budgeted production. While I’m not interested in seeing another version, it shows the interest in the premise. This film achieves some great things, especially on the technical side. There are some slow points, and the lack of interesting characters beyond the hunter makes it less successful. Øvredal incorporates some nice touches, including the trolls’ aversion to anyone who’s a Christian. He brings long-time myths about trolls into a modern setting, and the result is an enjoyable ride.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/148716-trollhunter/