For Whom the Bull Trolls (Pt. 1)

A few weeks ago, my eyes rolled across a small item in Entertainment Weekly regarding a new documentary which was getting a tad bit of buzz at the SXSW (South by Southwest) Film Festival in Austin, Texas. The doc was called Best Worst Movie, and it was directed by Mike Stephenson, and if you were to say in response to that tidbit of info, “Who?,” well, so did I. Stephenson, back in 1990, was the child “star” of an incredibly low-budget film called Troll 2, which, in the intervening years, has grown into a minor cult phenomenon, even having a festival held in its honor last year in the tiny Utah hamlet named Morgan where it lurched to life. All of this attention – the festivals, the documentary – did not come about due to any substantial positive success on Troll 2's part, but rather due to its lack of it. Troll 2 is, purportedly, one of the worst films ever made. It even held, for a while, the lowest ranking on IMDB, though several films have since passed it in viewer disdain.

Once I read the EW piece, I knew that I had to see Best Worst Movie, if only because of my interest in both the full breadth of film history and documentaries regarding filmmaking in general. The problem that rises, though, with my wishing to see this film about the making of a legendarily crappy film is that I like to go into these things with some knowledge of the source material. And -- please sit down, those of you who believe that I have already seen every crappy film that has ever crawled from the sludge of low culture -- I had not seen Troll 2. Yet...

Somehow I had avoided it all these years, even while spending many of them watching every horror film that crossed my path, crappy or otherwise. Sure, I had heard intimations from a great variety of sources, some of them personal, of how terrible it was supposed to be, and while this is usually a driving factor into my seeing something (it’s a reaction not unlike being told to smell spoiled milk, and even though you know it’s going to suck to do it, you do it anyway), I have missed every opportunity I have had over the years to indulge myself in the waiting pleasures of this little film that couldn’t (but then kind of did in a reverse fashion).

Naturally, with this latest nudge from EW, I knew my time with Troll 2 had come at last. But I suddenly realized that there was another problem at hand. Even though I knew that Troll 2 had nothing whatsoever to do with the original Troll picture put out by Empire Pictures in 1986, I figured that in the interest of doing things in an orderly fashion, I needed to see that film also. In fact, not seeing Troll in the first place was exactly why I had been putting off Troll 2 for so long. Well, that and really not having any drive at all to actually want to watch Troll 2. As regards the older Troll, somehow, even though I had seen just about every film produced or directed by Charles Band throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s – whether with Empire, Full Moon or otherwise – I had only seen ten minutes here and there of Troll on cable in that time. I knew Sonny Bono was in it, but knew little enough to actually believe for several years that Debbie Harry was involved (I was clearly crossing my movie wires with the original Hairspray here, which features both pop stars-turned-lackadaisical actors). I even knew what the troll design in the film looked like, thanks to having multitudes of special effects magazines like Fangoria in my collection. I just had simply not seen the film.

For some strange reason, MGM, perhaps sensing that the public should never go deprived of troll-enhanced entertainment choices, had put both films out on a dual disc a few years back. This meant nothing to me at the point that they first did it, but proved exceedingly fruitful to my purposes today. I was able to Netflix the disc and cast myself semi-willingly into the pit of souls who have already lived through the seeming nightmare of watching the first two Troll movies.

Troll (1986)
Director: John Carl Buechler
Empire, 1:22, color
Cinema 4 Rating: 4

Let's get this out of the way from the start: Troll features a teenage boy named Harry Potter (actually Harry Potter, Jr.) who finds himself awkwardly dumped into a world of magic, witches, wizards, trolls and monsters. Before anyone starts yelling "plagiarism" on J.K. Rowling's part, let me stress that upon actually watching the film, the similarities pretty much end with the statement I made above. There has been talk recently (over the past couple of years, actually) that Troll director Buechler was planning to sue, and this was all tied in with his announced intent to remake Troll as a much higher budget feature. Honestly, on the internet, rife with opinions from the left and right without a solid background of research, or even without letting readers know that what they have passed on is only rumor, it becomes hard to trust any source on this story. Yes, I just opened the drawer containing the dark spectre of plagiaristic litigiousness, and now I will slowly roll it shut with nary a sound. Because I really don't care how this one turns out. Rowling's series, no matter her varied inspirations for the material, is strong enough to stand on its own, and I doubt much can come of two pieces sharing a mere character's name and situations involving classical fantasy archetypes. Anyone hearing the Brothers Grimm knocking on the door?

Someone's knocking on several doors of the apartment building which forms the setting of Troll, and it is a little girl named Wendy Anne Potter who has been physically possessed by the titular troll of evil intent named Torok. Little Mr. Torok takes it upon himself to enter the apartments of the residents of the building in the guise of Wendy Anne, whose family has only just moved into the building the previous day, and where she was confronted by Torok in the basement, whereupon he kidnapped her. Torok's plan is to use a magical ring with a green-glowing spike to kill each resident, and then use their life energies to bring back the fantasy world of his younger days, which has disappeared due to the encroachment of mankind and the modern world. Upon their deaths, each apartment fills with new, forested life: trees and foliage and a variety of odd, fantastical creatures (most of them portrayed rather stiffly by all manner of puppetry), until the entire building starts to get taken over by the ancient world. Meanwhile, the only who knows, or cares to recognize, that something has happened to Wendy Anne is her brother, the aforementioned Harry Potter Jr., who senses that the newly maniacal posturings of his once adorable, little blond sister (she throws him across a room, for Pete's sake) cannot be normal. He finds himself entranced by the matronly woman who lives at the top of the building, whom we instantly recognize as the sort who will possess the power, or at least the knowledge, that will help Harry defeat the evil troll and rescue his sister.

It's not a bad set-up for a fantasy movie. So much fantasy takes place in awkward places, and if you think that the setting of the apartment complex is an odd one for such a story, then perhaps you are not aware that it is the very juxtaposition of our familiar, common, everyday world with the hidden magical one that provides the emotional impact behind such fantastical doings. Standing apart from the need that most have to shriek that this is merely a bad movie, and nothing more, I prefer to see in lesser films the remnants of what could have been. The truth should be told that Buechler and Band came remarkably close to producing a pretty decent fantasy film here, if only they had chosen to shy away from some of their baser instincts, and also if the budget truly allowed the bigger special effects and better puppetry for which the story cries.

The one element for which the film does not cry is that of an interesting cast, for it has that in spades. The series of actors is so odd that it really cries out for Kevin Bacon to appear to add another great connector for his namesake game. Harry Potter, Sr. is played by 4-time Emmy winner Michael Moriarty, who really has a nothing role here, but has some amusement doing a goofy dance to Blue Cheer's version of Eddie Cochran's Summertime Blues (though it is telling that the story is sparse enough to make room for this unnecessary sequence). Harry Potter, Jr. is portrayed by Noah Hathaway, who was not just Boxey in the original Battlestar Galactica, but also the warrior prince Atreyu in The Neverending Story. (Another truth must be told: he is not very good here.) For pure "icks," Sonny Bono shows up as a swingin' neighbor, and he has his moments playing a misogynistic asshole, while Gary Sandy (Andy Travis from my beloved WKRP, but also not very good here) inhabits another apartment, though the scene where the little girl (possessed by Torok) wanders into his home, though not played this way, is more than a little creepy in tone.

Lost in Space and Lassie mom June Lockhart gets the juiciest role as the secret good witch Eunice St. Clair, and she is not in enough of the film for my tastes. Her scenes almost seem like they have wandered in from another film, which I suppose is what it is sort of like when the fantasy realm invades the real world. Phil Fondacaro not only makes a nice impression under a nice makeup design as Torok, but also shows up as Wendy Anne's "little friend" Malcolm Mallory, a college professor/neighbor she meets on the street, whom the possessing Torok finds fascinating. Fondacaro gets a nice scene reciting some of Spenser's "The Fairie Queene," and his Malcolm is actually the most fully rendered character in the film. On the opposite side, for sheer head-whipping, "What the hell?" casting, a pre-Elaine Julia Louis-Dreyfus makes her film debut in Troll as one of the neighbors, while her boyfriend is played by Brad Hall, her real-life husband of 22 years (married just after this film) and former SNL cast-mate. Finally, Shelly Hack, as always, is stiff and inconsequential as the mother -- but, by this point, why not throw a latter-day Charlie's Angel in the mix?

But an eclectic cast does not necessarily a successful film make -- many failed films, both "A" and "B," flaunt flamboyant casts -- and this one just doesn't have the scope that the material requires. To truly pull off the implied merging of the two worlds requires a good deal more budget, or even more imagination with what little budget they have, than this one does. I admire the chutzpah that leads the filmmakers to one of the later sequences (I won't give away the visual, but it takes place just outside of the building), because it feels like an ultimate conclusion to their build-up of events. But the film's last third rather sputters to that point, where it feels exhausted rather than explosive, and while I did appreciate some of the character work, thanks to the limits of the puppetry (and believe me, as a bad puppeteer myself, it doesn't take much to make me happy in that department), I never really got caught up in the fantasy world. It's like I was ready to commit to the story, despite various disappointments along the way, and then finally decided it wasn't worth it. The other sticking point is the question: Does it want to be a kids' film or a horror film? It is far too gruesome in some elements for the wee ones, but just not gruesome enough to really interest most adults.

The sad part about Troll is that, with a little more scrubbing, a little more detail and a little more love, it could have been worth it. It could have been the worthiest film in Charles Band's stable (which, admittedly, isn't saying much...) These are the films that gall me the most. Bad films are bad films, but there are films where you can see that they were so close to actually pulling even the wackiest idea off, that it hurts a little bit more. It is not hard for me to imagine an alternate 2009 where Entertainment Weekly is publishing an article with the title Troll in it, and it is not about "non-sequel" sequels that might be the Best Worst Movie ever, but rather about the top 25 fantasy films of the past three decades, and there is John Carl Buechler and Charles Band's Troll in the list. Kids adore it, grow up scared and fascinated by it, and it inspires future filmmakers to pursue fantasy filmmaking of their own.

Instead, we have the Troll of 1986 as it is in the 2009 that we inhabit today: just another mid-'80s Band production with lofty ambitions, but without any means possible to really pull them off successfully. But, at least it tries, and I can't begrudge it that.

Which is a hell of a lot more than anyone can say about Troll 2...

[To be continued...]

Comments

I haven't seen either of these movies, strangely enough. I've wanted to for quite awhile, but they seem like they would be best experienced with a like minded group of friends.

And I am doing pretty much the same thing in preperation of watching the documentary Midnight Movies; renting the 6 titles feature in that movie that I haven't seen. So I guess that's a compulsion we share.

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