Sooner or later with the five billion channels I now get via the dish I was sure to come across something other than old Bilko reruns that was worth watching.
The other night I caught the documentary Best Worst Movie, a sort-of-history-of & definite salute to the God-awful-but-wonderful Troll 2 and the cult following its built amongst lovers of that special kind of bad film that’s worth seeing repeatedly. I’ve been calling them “Bad movies to love,” but way back when I earned my degree by writing about the history of the camp aesthetic & the love of the awful, I used the title “so bad it’s good” to describe the nebulous quality that puts some piece of crap into the particular pantheon.
Best Worst Movie was made by Michael Stephenson, who plays the young son in Troll 2. He tracks down the rest of the cast, the Italian director & writer, along with a lot of the fanboys and cult clubs that have turned the straight-to-video gem into something up there with Manos & the works of Ed Wood.
What makes this documentary excellent was its balance & honesty. Sure, we get the promotional angle of how we all need to be rewatching Troll 2 for its exquisite awfulness when we see the midnight screenings for film buff fanboys & nerdgirls, but what separated this from other docs I’ve seen celebrating pop cults (such as Trekkies) is how it also shows some refreshingly honest reality.
For dose of reality part A: we have George Hardy, the ever-smilin’ Alabama dentist who played the lead in the thing. Everybody in his small town loves this guy, even his ex-wife. He comes across as a genuinely happy person, at ease with himself and basically a positive force around whoever he’s with. He undergoes somewhat of an interesting journey during this film, first relishing his quasi-celebrity status in going to the midnight screenings with other cast members, reciting the bad dialogue & signing autographs, but then reaching a true epiphany – when no one, and I mean NO ONE, gives a crap about Troll 2 or him or the bad dialogue the geeks quote or anything else when he & others trek to an English sci-fi film fan show, it dawns on him just how small the cult really is. This is brilliantly juxtaposed with George wandering around the same convention hall and meeting other ’80s horror stars signing autographs, based on whatever their own single moment in the sun was – for their only screen role they got hacked up in Nightmare On Elm Street Part Whatever, basically a convention hall filled with the Sam J Jones of the world – and this is what hits him like a brick wall. He launches into a great speech about how they’re all reliving their past glory and then takes stock of how good his actual life back in ‘Bama is – and this is when he realizes how hollow the pursuit of fame can be – all while never losing his smile.
And this down to Earth realism is juxtaposed with Troll 2‘s Italian director, Claudio Fragasso – who is clearly pulled in different directions by the reaction to his film. On the one hand, he’s pleased the movie has become a hit with fans so many years later, but the more we watch him, we can see him seething underneath that the “crazy people” as he calls them laugh “at the wrong moments” at his film, which he defends mostly by trashing any of the actors’ backstage stories about low budgets and script problems.
And this is where the documentary succeeds in explaining the so-bad-it’s-good phenomenon better than anything I’ve ever seen. Long ago when I wrote about this, I argued that all of the films that fall into this category were not intentionally made to be bad. From Robot Monster to Creeping Terror to anything Ed Wood ever did, the film makers all sincerely put together something they honestly believed in. This gives you the honesty, the true naivéte, in the total misunderstanding of the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief, and what MUST be there for the film to be bad on that special narrow level within the scale of crapola to still be consistently entertaining throughout. THAT’S the key. All the people who set out to make a bad movie, or a movie so stupid, so exploitative, so… whatever… usually come up with a couple of decent scenes and the rest is boredom. They’ve gone into the entire project cynically, trying to be crappy. It’s crappy in the end, but not that elusive GOOD crappy that’s so prized among experienced film fans. So when we see Fragasso’s attitude, even after being confronted with the finished film, with the reactions of the audience and of the cast…. and he STILL doesn’t get it, we can see just how a film like Troll 2 can be made & why it succeeds on the level it does.
If only Stephenson could have been able to do the same with Ed Wood. I’ve often wondered how Wood, who died right before his films like Plan 9 and Glen or Glenda shot to the pinnacle of badcult status, would have reacted to it all. My own personal opinion is that Wood, who I think would have relished any sort of audience love & celebrity, would have shrugged his shoulders and enjoyed every minute of it. I think he’d be a lot more like Hardy than Fragasso.
Funny how a simple documentary about a minor piece of shit straight-to-video monstrosity from the late ’80s might be one of the best treatises on the psychology and relationship between filmmakers and their audience that I’ve seen.
Oh, and Troll 2? Oh yeah…. it delivers the goods, or bads, as it were.
Troll (1) has no relation to Troll 2, by the way, and for a cheap exploitation film, it’s not bad! How can it be with Sonny Bono in it? Troll had to do with an actual troll taking over an apartment house before being fought off by June Lockhart and the kid from Battlestar Galactica playing a character called Harry Potter (back in 1986!). Troll 2, totally different! This time, vegetarian goblins try to eat a family of lousy actors. Yum! In any case, I recommend seeing ’em both. Admit it, you’ve got nothing better to do, especially if you’re here reading this.