Even before re-engaging with the sensation that 1990’s “Troll 2” has become, I heard about the production of a film called “Best Worst Movie” that would document the cultification of this oddball flick, from the perspective of “Troll 2”‘s child star Michael Stephenson. Right up front, I have to say that “Best Worst Movie” would have had to do a lot of wrong in order to alienate me, and I’m not at all surprised to have found it a totally engaging, funny, and sometimes even poignant movie-watching experience. Much in the way that “Troll 2” very much earns its reputation at the top of the so-bad-it’s-good pantheon, and as such has a relatively small but rabid following, “Best Worst Movie” will be adored by fans of the cult film experience, while its appeal may fly right over the heads of more general audiences.
“Best Worst Movie” portrays the making of “Troll 2” in a manner not dissimilar to the depiction of community theatre in Christopher Guest’s “Waiting for Guffman”–there’s the visionary-to-the-point-of-delusion director, the eccentric cast, and the heartbreakingly terribly final production. In 1989, Claudio Fragasso, director of such camp classics as “Rats: Nights of Terror” and the 1984 Alice Cooper vehicle “Monster Dog”*, came to Utah and cast a bunch of unknown locals in a movie scripted by his long-time girlfriend Rosella Drudi that was intended to satirize the fanaticism of vegetarians. Months went by, and eventually the cast became aware that their movie, “Goblins,” was being played during off hours on HBO. One by one, the cast members saw the movie and one by one, the cast members were horrified at the awfulness of the finished product. During this period, I too saw the movie, deemed it dreadful**, and all but forgot about it–yes, this is a case for my brother being a LOT cooler than me, since he recognized the magic of “Troll 2” even at a very young age.
*I saw this on video in the mid-90s. It’s fucking terrible and makes one yearn for Cooper’s appearances in “Freddy’s Dead,” “Prince of Darkness,” and even “Sextette.” Life sucks for completists, I assure thee.
**I grew a sense of humor in intervening years, thank heavens.
In the years that followed, the cast members had gone on to lead the rest of their lives. In-movie dad George Hardy continued to pursue his career in dentistry, in-movie sis Connie McFarland went on to get married and continued her acting career with bit parts, and Fragasso kept on churning out schlock. Almost two decades later, something very strange began to happen–fans of trash cinema began to vocally embrace “Troll 2.” It’s crucial to note that the fandom of “Troll 2” is a relatively recent development–it’s not a continuation of a group founded in the early 1990s, but rather a sensation fueled by social networking and the rise in prominence of “So Bad It’s Good” cinema in the post-“Mystery Science Theatre 3000” landscape. Upon discovering that their shameful secret had been unearthed, the cast members reacted with surprise, ultimately embracing their strange variety of fame. It’s fascinating to see the varied reactions of the actors, from George Hardy’s delight (it’s he who actively seeks out the first vocal “Troll 2” fans at New York City’s Upright Citizen’s Brigade comedy theater) to the genuine bafflement of Don Packard, who played the general store owner.
The film starts to explore some fascinating elements of the “Bad Movie” fandom when the documentarians visit Claudio Fragasso in Rome. Fragasso speaks in high-minded terms of the pride he feels at fans embracing his film in spite of the cruel words of critics. It’s clear that he doesn’t understand that people love “Troll 2” because of it’s balls-out weirdness, and watching footage of him attend American screenings of his film is both hilarious and deeply uncomfortable. It’s an interesting commentary on creative projects and the manner in which audiences claim them as their own. Is it better to have one’s work be appreciated widely, if not for the reasons one set out to create that art? Or is it better to go unappreciated entirely?
Further aspects of rabid fandom are touched upon when Hardy and Stephenson attend fan conventions to promote “Troll 2.” At the “Troll 2” screenings, they are superstars, mobbed by fans, appearing on t-shirts and at the center of the goings-on. At the fan conventions, they are but a blip on the radar of the larger portion of the attendees. It’s interesting to watch Hardy, in particular, struggle with the horror convention experience–he’s pretty grossed-out by the con-goers (who can blame him?!) and begins to question his own legacy. After interacting with several actors from sequels in the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series, he starts to wonder what it would be like to hang his entire selfhood on what’s really such a small moment in his life. It’s a poignant and authentic moment.
“Best Worst Movie” is full of great moments that get to the geeky heart of what it means to be a capital-F FAN. At the end of the day, is it really so different for a “Troll 2” enthusiast to talk about the movie’s “magicalness” than it is for Fragasso’s colleagues to claim that the movie inspired “Harry Potter?” And is the joy so very different for members of either fandom?