Combustible Celluloid
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With: George Hardy, Claudio Fragasso, Michael Stephenson, Darren Ewing, Jason Steadman, Jason Wright, Margo Prey, Connie Young, Robert Ormsby, Don Packard, Rossella Drudi, Scott Weinberg
Written by: Michael Stephenson
Directed by: Michael Stephenson
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 93
Date: 03/01/2009

Best Worst Movie (2010)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Troll Collectors

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In preparing to watch the new documentary Best Worst Movie, I began poking through the filmographies of some of the cast and crew of Troll 2 (1990), including director Claudio Fragasso. I was surprised to discover that many years ago I had seen and enjoyed one of his earlier films, a so-bad-it's-good crapsterpiece called Monster Dog (1984). I also sat down to watch Troll 2. And, no, you don't need to see Troll (1986) to understand what's going on; there's no connection. However, watching Troll 2, by myself, as research, did not yield the same results as Monster Dog. I found Troll 2 awful, but not particularly in a fun way. I found it more gruesome and painfully embarrassing than anything else. However, I imagine that a first viewing is nothing more than a precursor to a second viewing, and the more times one watches, the funnier more entertaining the film gets.

On to Best Worst Movie, which is directed by Michael Stephenson, who also played the kid in Troll 2. The new documentary includes plenty of footage from the early film, although moments like the corn-popping scene (!) probably should be viewed in context. It also interviews many of the old cast members, and they tell their tragic stories. After wrapping Troll 2, most of them eagerly awaited their chance to see their efforts play out on the big screen. That never happened. Instead, most of them wound up seeing the film for the first time on video, or on TV, and the results were almost always the same: surprise, shock, revulsion, and embarrassment. The professional actors in the cast erased the film from their resume, and others gave up their acting careers altogether. Years later, the movie found its way to #1 on the IMDB's all time worst 100 movies list, although, to be fair, that list is constantly updated and many other movies have held the same (dis)honor. But it attracted some attention to the movie, and people started watching it again. And, like Plan 9 from Outer Space before it, it began to develop a devoted cult following.

This new documentary mostly follows the progress of the cult movement, rather than the making of the movie itself. The two most fascinating characters are director Fragasso and star George Hardy, without whom the documentary wouldn't have been worth much. After making Troll 2, Hardy went back to work as a dentist in Alabama. Apparently, he lives a simple, happy, bachelor life, charming everyone in town with his effortless smiles and his performances in the annual town parades. He receives word of the Troll 2 revival, including an invitation to the film's first ever actual screening. Emerging from backstage after the show, Hardy is dumbstruck to be greeted with enthusiastic applause. He eats it up, and begins devoting himself to a second career as a promoter and cheerleader for Troll 2. ("You haven't seen it? You're missing out!") We come to learn that his yearning for the limelight never quite died, and this could be his second chance.

These screenings are one thing, since the cult audience is more or less already converted, but Hardy discovers that horror conventions are quite another thing; the Troll 2 fans don't really turn up. The footage of Hardy trying to make the best of a fan-less booth at a convention is the most heartbreaking moment of the film. Likewise, screenings for the uninitiated -- such as a hometown showing for Hardy's friends and family -- don't quite go as planned either. As I discovered, seeing the film for the first time is a huge turn-off.

Then we meet director Fragasso, who -- improbably -- has no idea that he has made a terrible film. He's Italian, works mainly with an Italian crew, and has worked more or less regularly since 1990. He makes many movies in English, though his own grasp of the language is broken at best (though it has reportedly improved somewhat since 1989). Fragasso attends a few of the Troll 2 screenings, criticizes the actors and scowls at the announcers when they refer to his art as "bad." He's clearly an egomaniac, and though Stephenson tries his best to understand him and get close to him, it feels like there's a palpable relief when he's gone.

Hardy and Fragasso make kind of an interesting yin and yang; they're both a bit deluded, but in opposite directions. Hardy knows the film is bad, but tries to spin his new adoration into something positive, while Fragasso thinks the film is good and reacts badly when people try to tell him otherwise. Director Stephenson rarely turns the camera on himself, and relatively little on the other actors, but he almost doesn't need to with this kind of luck.

The other actors are just not as interesting, or revealing. Connie Young has tried to continue acting, and still wants nothing to do with Troll 2. Her performance in that film has been ruthlessly criticized, and she could still be hurting. We also meet Robert Ormsby ("Grandpa"), who sighs that he has probably wasted his life, and Don Packard ("Drugstore Owner"), who spent some time in an asylum. Then there's Margo Prey, who played the mother in the film; she has turned into kind of a weird hermit, taking care of her aged mother and still talking about returning to acting. Her presence is so creepy that Hardy even mentions it on camera ("I couldn't wait to get out of there").

The movie interviews some critics (my editor Scott Weinberg among them) and fans, all of whom try to explain the appeal of Troll 2, and I think they nail it: it's earnest, rather than cynical. It really tries and really believes in what it's saying. It's genuine, even if it's totally clueless. These kinds of movies are very, very rare. Usually bad movies, especially today, are anything but genuine.

Best Worst Movie, on the other hand, doesn't seem to go very deep. It's cheerful and ready to have a good time, and it's blessed with some truly unique characters, but I think it needed a more objective director than Stephenson. The movie doesn't seem to understand that while the fans are happy, the filmmakers and actors are a little sad. Keeping the movie's tone so light gives the impression that it's poking fun at its subjects, even when it doesn't mean to. But these moments are not constant, and there's so much good material here that it's worth digging into. Just don't eat the green stuff.

Docurama Films released the 2010 DVD, complete with deleted scenes, interviews, a music video, contributions from fans and a message from the "Goblin Queen" (Deborah Reed). Sadly, Troll 2 is sold separately.

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