Best Worst Movie

After seeing Troll 2 twice (in the theater) I finally watched Best Worst Movie this evening. It’s a documentary about the notoriously horrid 1990 movie Troll 2, following the film’s actors almost 20 years after the film’s release. Troll 2 was never released in theaters, making its debut on home video and HBO. The film was a critical and financial failure – dubbed the worst movie ever and scoring the lowest position on IMDB and other websites. Following years of obscurity, Troll 2 is now a cult favorite, inspiring Troll 2 parties, midnight screenings, and other acts of fandom.

When I saw Troll 2 in the theater at the Florida Film Festival I was unaware of a documentary about it. I’d never seen Troll 2, but I was quite aware of the preceding film Troll; the sequel has no relation except in name. Troll features Sonny Bono, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and has a song about tampons. It’s not a great movie, but it’s one of those ‘80s flicks former roommates would get high and watch. I was only aware of Troll 2 because friends were movie geeks and because I worked at a movie store. My interest equaled that of watching The Omen IV or Hellraiser V – basically none. However, when the Florida Film Festival website hyped the movie so zealously, I had to check it out. I went again to another screening the following night and now I’m a convert. I’m not as obsessed with it as some – who appear in Best Worst Movie – but I definitely understand why people herald Troll 2 as a prime example of a great bad movie. It’s something I’ll probably see a handful of times in the future, especially with people who haven’t.

Michael Stephenson (Joshua in Troll 2) is responsible for Best Worst Movie and 20 years after a humiliating experience watching Troll 2 decided to create a documentary about the strange resurgence in the film’s cult status. The main subject of Best Worst Movie (aside from the film’s notoriety) is Troll 2 star George Hardy, a dentist who played Michael Waits in the film. Starring only in Troll 2, George is a dentist in a small Alabamian town who, along with Stephenson, goes along for the ride regarding the film’s popularity. He appears at multiple screenings of the film, fan conventions, and even an Upright Citizens Brigade presentation of the film along with a Q&A session with the majority of the film’s cast. George is a very likeable person, coming across as sincere and fun-loving. The current success of Troll 2 astounds him; this is noticeable when he appears in front of crowds of fans.

Stephenson also tracks down the majority of the cast, including Joshua’s sister Holly(Connie McFarland), the deceased Grandpa Seth (Robert Ormsby), Joshua and Holly’s mother (Margo Prey), and others. Some of their stories are comic but many are depressing. For instance, Margo Prey is living in small town Utah with her elderly mother. She appears disheveled; a partial shut-in, with only her old mother as company. Margo agrees to an interview with Stephenson and Hardy, but won’t appear at screenings for Troll 2. The group of inadvertently homoerotic boys who follow Holly to the rural town of Nilbog are mostly struggling actors, not making any dent in Hollywood. One’s a struggling actor, one’s a struggling musician, and one’s an author with a few notorious books on the market. While their stories don’t rival Prey’s, they’re not exactly in-demand entertainers. 

When the majority of the cast reunite in New York City for an Upright Citizens Brigade show and screening, the venue sells out. The cast receives a warm reception and the documentary then follows Stephenson and Hardy around America, appearing at various screenings in prominent cities (San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin, etc.). What’s fascinating is the amount of fandom this movie has. The crowd attending all these Troll 2 parties and screenings isn’t your typical horror fans and a scene with Hardy and a few other cast members at a horror convention reveals the film’s anonymity. If horror fans aren’t obsessing over Troll 2 then who is? Who are these people showing up at Troll 2 conventions, midnight screenings and so forth? What niche does the guy with a Troll 2 tattoo fall into? Am I trying to stereotype people because of their adherence to a 20 year old film that average movie goers aren’t aware of or despise? 

I can’t help asking these questions. The gore hounds attending horror conventions could care less about Troll 2, instead looking for the latest piece of Friday the 13th memorabilia, yet the film has a devout following. Its possible these Troll 2 fanatics aren’t horror fans but fans of camp; followers of the absurd, which Troll 2 is. One film critic in Best Worst Movie argues the film is one of a kind; a film that comes along “only once in a generation.” This assessment of Troll 2 is accurate, but what makes it such a bizarrely bad film? After watching Best Worst Movie I think I have an idea why.

The film’s director, Claudio Fragasso (also the director of Zombi 3 and 4), is an Italian filmmaker. He’s not an artist in any way, but a maker of films; a director who pumps out what he can whenever he can. Unlike somebody like David Lynch, who only has about a dozen or so films under his belt, Fragasso doesn’t make films because of his love for the art but instead for the money. Does it help that he works in an industry he loves? Of course, but he has to earn a living. I’m sure survival is paramount over artistic license. Troll 2’s actors claim the Fragasso and his crew spoke very little English while making the film and this linguistic barrier, combined with a cultural distance, is probably responsible for the lack of coherency in the film. Fragasso also earnestly claims he’s knowledgeable about Americans, their culture and modes of communication. This obviously isn’t the case. I hypothesize Troll 2 is the result of cultural illiteracy; an Italian interpretation of America’s consumer values circa 1989. The reason Troll 2 is so unique and mesmerizing is this form of reverse Orientalism.

Troll 2’s second scene, taking place in Joshua’s bedroom, is a mishmash of consumer symbols. Plastering the walls are posters for Batman and Superman; flags for various sports teams, conveying a schizophrenic team allegiance; his bedside lamp features a popular culture symbol of some sort. Popular culture infiltrating an American child’s room is commonplace, but the placement of these decorations has no coherent logic. It’s possible the art director went to Wal-Mart and grabbed whatever looked popular and appropriate; it’s not like there was a serious aesthetic concern on the set. The same way Japanese commercials seem bizarre to us, it’s possible Fragasso and his crew observed late ‘80s American culture this way.

Elliot (Jason Wright) and his “boys” are very familiar with each other, one scene featuring Elliot and another boy sleeping shirtless in a small bed together. Most American teens would view this as “gay,” or call each other “homo,” but maybe it’s different to Italians. I’m not too instructed on Italian culture so I can’t make a quantitative assessment, yet it’s possible the mixed signals in American culture attest to this. The closeness of athletes in American sports, the homoeroticism in late ‘80s popular music (Poison, New Kids on the Block, etc.), especially on MTV, and other examples could influence Fragrasso’s interpretation of another culture, filtering it into Troll 2.

My favorite scene is the Holly’s dance scene. I don’t really know what to say, although it’s definitely ridiculous. Here’s a clip

I found myself smiling during Best Worst Movie and although some moments still amuse me there are depressing parts. Margo Prey’s circumstances are sad, the fate of Elliot’s friends is bittersweet, and Hardy’s flirtation with cult status is the same. His enthusiasm for Troll 2 is sincere, but his delusion about the film’s longevity is distressing.  He eventually comes to his senses, dropping any pretensions about acting again and realizing he’s in a good place already. His dental practice is thriving and he holds a prominent place in his community. However, when asked about Troll 3 he says, “Definitely.”

For fans of Troll 2, this is your documentary. Anybody looking for an interesting documentary about what makes a bad film great, this is your documentary. Its well put together, coherent, and presents a great pseudo-objective tale economically. Best Worst Movie doesn’t linger on any particular point, moving from one moment to the next without stalling. Its pace keeps the movie interesting; after all, it’s a 90+ minute documentary about a bad movie. Remember, Troll 2 has all the makings of a decent film: shot composition, lighting, editing – these are all done proficiently. It’s the cultural illiteracy, almost like Fragasso’s intention is lost in translation. Like a television show from Europe or Asia that seems otherworldly, Troll 2 functions the same way, revealing the ignorance cultures have of each other.

Here is the trailer

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