By Erik Amaya
Nobody sets out to make bad films, yet they're released all the time and are, generally, forgotten. However, sometimes a movie is so spectacularly terrible that it transcends its deficiencies to win the hearts of an audience. Best Worst Movie, which opens on Friday in Los Angeles, is not a bad movie, but it illustrates the love for one such film: Troll 2.
Directed by Italian director Claudio Fragasso, the 1990 horror film has nothing to do with the first Troll. Instead, it centers on a small town filled with vegetarian goblins that turn unsuspecting humans into vegetable matter and then eat them. It's poorly written, poorly acted and, yes, poorly directed. It also, for the most part, ended the careers its young stars. Yet over the years, Troll 2 has found a following, thanks to airings on cable television and to intrepid fans renting VHS copies and learning the movie's odd truth: that, somehow, it's a pleasure to watch.
Best Worst Movie finds Troll 2 actors Michael Stephenson (who also directed the documentary) and George Hardy almost 20 years later confronting the phenomenon that has grown up around the film. The two go from city to city, where fans show their love for the film and its stars.
While Stephenson occasionally appears on-screen, he focuses his lens on his co-star, a practicing dentist in Alabama who had hoped to break into acting with Troll 2. Hardy is shown in his natural habitat for some time before Troll 2 is introduced into the documentary's framework. It's a good choice, as he's revealed to be an energetic and likable guy praised in his community. Even Hardy's ex-wife is hard-pressed to say anything negative about him.
He becomes our bemused tour guide on the journey of Troll 2 screenings and appearances over the course of 2007. At the screenings, we see people ask Hardy to recite his most famous line, "You can't piss on hospitality! I WON'T ALLOW IT!" They show up in costumes, with some recreating scenes while others make a whole day of it with games and potluck dinners. They have Q&A sessions with the cast and, at times, Fragasso. While these sorts of activities are not exclusive to the cult of Troll 2, it's unusual to see someone like Hardy take the concept on. He enjoys the engagement fans have with the film and, eventually, gets caught up in it.
Not so quick to embrace Troll 2's reception is Fragasso, who tries to explain its popularity without ever admitting the film is bad. If the first rule of bad-movie appreciation is "No one sets out to make a bad film," the second is, "Few will ever admit to making a bad film." Stephenson does a good job letting us get to know Fragasso before the director's irritation with the cast and the audience leads him to start calling everyone "dogs."
Despite interviews with many of the film's devotees, no one can pin down why people love Troll 2. This is a key concept Best Worst Movie never really addresses. However, without a solid way to discuss the film, no one can engage Fragasso on his terms as a filmmaker. Honestly, it's hard to expect any director to accept, "Your movie sucks, but it's great" as a vote of confidence.
On their journey, Stephenson and Hardy meet up with Troll 2 castmates, including Margo Prey, who played Stephenson's mother. Prey still lives in the house Hardy picked her up from when the film was being shot. Eighteen years later, they find a virtual shut-in with emotional problems who takes care of her elderly mother. In a later interview segment, Hardy admits to finding the day with her troubling. It is an odd sequence, but one that marks a turn in the documentary.
Hardy helps to organize a fundraiser screening of Troll 2 in his community. He drums up a sizable audience but becomes concerned when people do not laugh at the parts that typically cause fans to double over. Subsequently, he flies to the UK with Stephenson and fellow actor Darren Ewing where, during an appearance at a memorabilia show, they find the film is unknown. Hardy has a difficult time explaining its charm to a crowd more interested in buying collectibles than taking about something gleefully called "the worst movie ever made." They find a similar reaction to the film at a horror convention back in the United States: Few of the attendees have heard of the movie, and fewer want to learn about it.
Hardy burns out a little on the Troll 2 phenomenon. However, he does tell Stephenson he would star in Troll 3 if it ever happens. While Stephenson is always sympathetic to Hardy, his lens does reveal a man who gets slightly drunk on the attention. It's an interesting arc for the dentist, who sees stars once again when the bad-movie phenomenon touches his life. In some ways, it mirrors Fragasso's misunderstanding of what it means to receive this sort of recognition. At a final event in Utah, the director's frustration bubbles to the surface when he believes the actors are downplaying their own faults while calling the film bad. (Of course, the actors will be the first to admit they're terrible in the film.) In the end, he says, "People must be moved by the movie in some way ... how else do you explain the phenomenon?"
Best Worst Movie celebrates the humanity of a bad movie: the filmmakers who intended to make great art but can't accept how the film is received, the actors who never met their goals in the field but still acquire a piece of immortality, and the audience that discovers and relishes these odd gems. This documentary thanks the bad-movie lovers for doing what they do.
Best Worst Movie opens Friday in Los Angeles and will appear in other cities throughout the summer. Its screening schedule can be found here.