Wednesday, 31 October 2018


Charles Band created Empire International Pictures to facilitate the independent production and theatrical distribution of many distinctive horror films and science fiction and fantasy pictures, which were made throughout the middle period of the 1980s, usually containing a large dollop of comedy at their core -- the intention being to exploit the emerging home VHS market. After Luca Bercovici’s horror comedy Ghoulies was an unexpected box office hit for the Company, Band was able to purchase Dino De Laurentiis’s Cinematografici in Rome, and set about creating Empire’s very own mini studio system. Troll emerged at the very start of this golden period and came about as a result of ideas Band and director John Carl Buechler had already been discussing on the set of Ghoulies. Buechler’s friend, the mystery novelist and Ex Starlog and Fangoria editor Ed Naha, was brought in to script the film after having successfully turned his hand to writing genre screenplays for Roger Corman – and the result is one of the oddest middle-eighties horror fantasy genre products of all time: a bizarre hybrid of comedy, children’s fantasy, FX-driven horror and -- believe it or not -- musical! Largely dismissed at the time as an embarrassing misfire, Troll proved successful enough to spawn several unofficial and totally unrelated sequels, the first of which went on to earn itself a reputation for being the ‘best worst movie of all time’ until it was challenged recently by Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. Both Troll and Troll 2 are now released on a single disc by Eureka Entertainment as part of a two-disc collection that also includes the Troll 2 documentary Best Worst Movie, alongside an extensive suite of extra features.

The first of these two movies was overseen by the man who was to go on to direct Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood in 1988, and features an offbeat but diverse cast made up of Emmy and Golden Globe winner Michael Moriarty; the teenage star of the then-recent hit movie The NeverEnding Story, Noah Hathaway; ‘60s singer-musician & actor Sonny Bono; Revlon model and Charlie’s Angels star Shelley Hack; plus it marks the first screen appearance of Seinfeld regular Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Troll comes with 'cult' stamped through its centre like a stick of rock but is distinguished by two performances that stand out as particularly special. Child actor Jenny Beck is compelling as the teenage hero’s mischievous Troll-possessed kid sister Wendy, and Phil Fondacaro brings an unexpected poignancy to the film in a dual-role playing sensitive University lecturer Malcolm Malory while also being the man in the rubber suit and make-up who plays the ugly Troll creature itself. These two embroider the throwaway tongue-in-cheek fantasy surrealism that motors the movie with the kernel of emotional truth which is most likely the key to its continuing popularity. Hopefully, Eureka’s new release will also encourage a whole generation of new fans to seek out what is undoubtedly a peak example of 1980s fantasy horror weirdness …

Twelve years before JK Rowling published the first Harry Potter novel, Troll introduced us to a fictional world of magic and spells in which a young teenager, also called Harry Potter (Noah Hathaway), discovers he has hidden powers that will be needed in order to thwart the plans of an evil wizard. The wizard Torok has been turned into a Troll a long time ago after losing the war he was responsible for starting between the humans and the fairies. Banished to a separate fairy realm as a result, he now plans to destroy the world by turning the inhabitants of a San Franciscan apartment complex (which happens to exist on the border between his world and ours) into a variety of impish fairy creatures, upsetting the natural balance that has existed between the two worlds for eons. This plan is put into practice, unfortunately, just as the Potter family are moving in on the ground floor. Little Wendy Potter becomes its first victim after she stumbles upon the horrible diminutive Troll creature living in the apartment building’s basement. He keeps her body imprisoned in a glass coffin in the fairy dimension whilst he possesses her mind and steals her likeness to use as a disguise to help him wreak havoc throughout the rest of the building. Gradually, various modern apartments get turned into bucolic mini fairy grottos after being paid a visit by this impish Troll disguised as the innocent little girl. And their inhabitants, such as Sonny Bono’s playboy lothario and a young Julia Louis-Dreyfus, find themselves transformed into a menagerie of bizarre creatures who soon all get to join in with a choral trolls’ sing-along! Eventually, Harry Potter Jr gives up trying to convince his oblivious parents (Moriarty and Hack) that something truly weird is going on right under their noses; and he is certainly wasting his time in trying to persuade them that his sister is no longer really his sister.  A chance meeting with a little old lady called Eunice St Clair (Lost in Space’s June Lockhart) introduces him to a world of fairy magic and sorcery. He finds out that she is really Torok’s one-time fairy princess, and has been living in the human realm to guard the gateway between the two worlds, hoping to ensure that Torok doesn’t manage to cause any real harm. Harry also discovers that he is the only person who can save his sister ... and possibly, the world.

Shot in Italy with matte painting backgrounds of the Golden Gate Bridge, Troll is truly a deranged piece of comedy-fantasy, and possibly the 80s’ most successful attempt at making pure surrealism out of FX-laden content -- a sub-genre Empire Pictures was becoming particularly adept at during this period. The film works primarily because the tone keeps shifting in unpredictable ways and one is never sure how to react to the bizarre sights and strange manic performances it presents across an entertainingly offbeat eighty minutes or so. The combination of animatronics, puppetry, matte work and optical effects, as well as stop-motion animation, produces a shifting tapestry of outrageousness -- a cartoon grotesquery that gets even stranger as the film progresses and with each new viewing. Beck gives an incredibly committed performance as the possessed child but also manages to convey the idea that beneath all that Troll mischief she’s responsible for, the sympathetic little girl is still present. This is particularly evident in her scenes with Phil Fondacaro when he’s in human form as the terminally ill lecturer Malcolm who befriends her. The role feels like an actor’s gift, intended as a ‘thank you’ for all those Troll and Ewok roles that ’little people’ usually have to put up with as their lot in life. Malcolm is probably the one straight role in the whole movie that has a genuine depth to it, and the friendship with Wendy, despite being played for laughs when Wendy’s unwitting parents prepare a children’s party to greet their daughter’s ‘little friend’, has genuinely touching moments -- such as when Malcolm discusses his fatal medical condition with the uncomprehending Troll/child.    

Despite its reputation -- garnered in the early years of internet fandom -- for being ‘the worst movie ever made’, Troll 2 plays exactly as you’d expect a film would play when it's been shot in the US by non-English-speaking Italians and produced by exploitation maestro Joe D’Amato; with goblin costumes (there are no trolls in Troll 2) ‘designed’ by Grindhouse star Laura Gemser, and a cast made up largely of non-actor Mormons with no previous experience in front of a camera. Fly-by-night Italian film producers coming to the US and shooting off the grid without permits to make unofficial low budget sequels to successful Hollywood genre movies was a common enough practice throughout the eighties, although by the end of the decade, when Troll 2 went into production in the picturesque village of Porterville, Utah, even this formula was struggling to remain profitable, as the Italian film industry was entering into a steep decline that was effectively side-lining the careers of even its bigger names at the time.

The director who had come to America to make this movie in the summer of 1989 with a crew of non-English-speaking technicians, was Claudio Fragasso, who’d been deeply involved in Italian genre films throughout the 80s, when he’d co-written ‘masterpieces’ of their kind such as Rats: Night of Terror and Hell of the Living Dead. He had partnered up with his screenwriter wife Rossella Drudi to script Lucio Fulci and Bruno Mattei’s Zombie 3, but the couple’s most infamous collaboration came after Fragasso had begun directing low budget genre fare himself, and Drudi wrote him a script about vegetarian Goblins who turn people into plant matter because it makes them more easily digestible. So what is it about the film that has captured the imagination of so many down the years, and resulted in the sell-out screenings and the dippy Troll 2 parties we find documented throughout Best Worst Movie, the accompanying documentary on this release?  

As is so often the case, a lot of the noise that has accompanied the film down the years has only a tangential relationship to the actual work itself. There are some obvious production factors one can point at to explain the strangeness of some of the content and we can happily describe the most puzzlingly obtuse scenes to give some idea of why the film has developed its almost mythic status amongst devotees of bad movies and disciples of camp the world over, but the thing to keep in mind -- and that actually clinches the deal -- when considering Troll 2, is that this is not at all a badly made movie. Sure, continuity lapses give away that it’s clearly been made in a bit of a rush, like almost all films of its ilk; but these Italian crews were, nonetheless, skilled artisans who thought nothing of working under such conditions, and Giancarlo Ferrando’s cinematography is routinely excellent (something that can now be appreciated properly in full HD). Composer Carlo Maria Cordio delivers one of those typically Italian (and instantly familiar) Demons-inspired synth-based rock soundtracks that genre fans will recognise from countless late-period Fulci films. The screenplay may be bonkers but it keeps moving at a decent lick throughout; so unlike many ‘bad movies’ it’s never a chore to watch. Even when it inevitably starts to get bogged down in the final act (the film is still at least fifteen minutes too long), it entertains with the sheer ludicrousness of its spectacle. Has there, for instance, ever been a concept in any movie more ridiculous than the idea of a family being under siege in their house because they refuse to eat a bag of sandwiches? (tossed outside their barricaded front door with the threat “eat these sandwiches, or we will have to kill you violently!”) 

Troll 2 genuinely is a bad movie, but one that’s been done really well, with never any intention on the part of the film-makers to deliberately play up the camp factors. This is what ensures its camp value is actually off the scale. In that regard, the film represents an almost alchemical combination of elements coming together in just the right sequence and proportion to produce an effect that was never intended by anyone involved with the production, but which has resulted in Troll 2 obtaining (in an admittedly small-scale kind of way) a cultural durability very few other films in the grand scheme of things can ever hope to come anywhere near replicating.

Most of what makes Troll 2 special comes across as a result of the cultural contrast that's highlighted by how a mostly non-professional cast of actors approached their roles in the movie while running up against routine Italian filmmaking practices of that time period. You can find echoes of the effect this produces at work in almost any Italian film shot in the US with US actors during the 1980s (which is why even the best of those films often don’t play particularly well with your average modern cinemagoer). But Troll 2 pushes these processes way past the point of no return until it becomes simply impossible for an audience to suspend its disbelief and make allowances in the way that usually becomes necessary at some point during almost any movie.

Consequently, the film will either be rejected by the viewer or he or she will learn to watch and appreciate it in a different manner from most other films. When this happens in ‘respectable’ cinema, it’s called arthouse; when it happens in genre movies it either becomes a testament to a ‘so good it’s bad’ aesthetic, or the work gets filed away as a cult flick. Best Worst Movie, the documentary, is actually pretty good at providing pertinent material for the attempt one might want to make to get to grips with exactly why Troll 2 affects its audiences in the way it does. What comes across here is how seriously Fragasso and Drudi took their work at the time, and to some extent still do even today; with a straight face Fragasso describes Troll 2 in similar terms to how a director such as Aldo Lado might describe the political intent behind a movie of his like Late Night Trains (which, to the rest of the world looked like a knockoff of Last House on the Left, but set on a train) and solemnly explains how his film “examines many serious and important issues” concerning the institution of the family and the many threats it apparently faces. Even more puzzlingly, Drudi insists her offbeat screenplay was “a ferocious analysis of today’s society”. It’s not like Fragasso and Drudi didn’t intent the film to be funny; it quite clearly is conceived as a fantasy parable that takes certain elements from the structure of fairy tales and combines them with an Italian horror movie aesthetic that has a lot in common with the Demons franchise, particularly in how it replaces blood red gore with a more ratings-friendly green goo to take the film completely out of the realm of horror and into the zone of fantasy. Drudi also intended the film to be a knowing dig at vegetarianism, which she satirises by representing the heroes constantly have to fend off all sorts of unpleasant ‘healthy’ food options that actually poison them, and will either make them grow twigs and eventually turn into potted plants to be tended lovingly by the Goblin Queen, Creedence Leonore Gielgud (Deborah Reed), or melt into a putrid green slop that is actually the chlorophyll mulch her ugly burlap sack-wearing goblin brood use to feed on. In one of the deleted scenes from Best Worst Movie, Rossella Drudi also mentions how she had previously suffered from an eating disorder at one point in her life -- after which all those tense scenes in which we witness the wholesome Waits family being offered mountains of colourful but sickly-looking food and drink by goblins in human form, and the various schemes the ten-year-old hero Joshua (Michael Paul Stephenson) resorts to at the behest of the ghost of his dead Grandpa (played by the inherently avuncular Robert Ormsby) in order to avoid ever having to eat anything at all, suddenly begin to resonate with a whole new level of meaning.

The most important factor in determining how the movie turned out and was received, though, is the language barrier that existed between the English-speaking cast and the exclusively Italian-speaking crew. The script was written in Italian by Drudi and translated by her into English using a Webster’s Dictionary, producing that ‘tin ear’ effect that’s so enhanced by the fact that since some of the cast were not professional actors they simply did not have the skills to even begin convincingly selling the poorly rendered dialogue. Fragasso was also apparently improvising on set and changing elements of the scrip as he went along (the jaw-dropping scene in which Joshua decides that the best way to stop his family eating a feast left for them by the goblins will be to stand on a chair at the dinner table and piss on the food, was allegedly one of these improvisations) adding to the confusion of the cast (who couldn’t understand much of what was in the script at the best of times) and producing much of the head-scratching incoherence of the narrative. The cast was selected from open auditions, and it’s the movie’s potpourri of local theatre actors, hopeful neophytes, and enthusiastic amateurs -- each of whom seem to be individually pitching their performance for a slightly different imagined movie – which is responsible for many of the most beloved moments of ‘wrongness’ this film encompasses, as each member of the cast set about tackling in their own unique way the eccentricities of Drudi’s script. On the one hand, we have Deborah Reed, who plays the ancient stone-hugging druid Goblin Queen deliberately as a pantomime character -- or like the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz but with a chainsaw. On the other, there is the crazed performance of Don Packard as Nilbog's drugstore owner, a local mental patient who took the role as a form of therapy and was apparently completely stoned the whole time the movie was being shot. 

Best Worst Movie started life as an attempt by the film’s former ten-year-old lead, Michael Paul Stephenson, to understand in later years how the film that he once thought would make him a movie star but in fact became an embarrassment, has suddenly morphed into a cult phenomenon that has resurfaced to turn him into a cult celebrity for a small but often obsessively devoted group of fans. His performance in Troll 2 is defined by the solemn but teary childlike earnestness he brings to the character of Joshua: the little boy whose dead Granpa Seth continues to visit him as a ghost to warn of the danger he and his family are in when his dad agrees to a house exchange venture that sees the family going to live in the home of the Presents clan in the small town of Nilbog (for the slow on the uptake, that’s Goblin spelt backwards).  Other highlights include Joshua’s feisty bodybuilding sister Holly (Connie Young) and her bizarre dysfunctional relationship with boyfriend Elliot (Jason Wright): a man who seems unnaturally devoted to his geeky friends, who follow the Waits family to Nilbog in a Winnebago and all sleep together in the same bed. Meanwhile, the trolls – sorry, Goblins! – were cast with dwarfs dressed in sacking and made up with amateurish masks; the ludicrous sight of them at the beginning of the film, jogging through woodland carrying their little wooden spears while Carlo Maria Cordio ’s synth-rock theme hammers away on the soundtrack, is just the first indication of the madness to come.

Stephenson began shooting his documentary in 2006 and continued over a period of four years. During that time, and since the final edit, the doc has come to be defined by one of its original stars more than any other. In fact, the story of Troll 2, as envisioned in this film, is the story of George Hardy, who plays Joshua’s no-nonsense dad Michael Waits and appears in many of Troll 2’s funniest scenes. Hardy was practising dentistry in Utah when the Troll 2 producers were casting for the movie in the area and he continued to do so throughout the shoot. After the film was completed he simply forgot all about it and was convinced his dreams of becoming a movie star had come to nothing when the film failed to appear in theatres. He went back to practising dentistry and set up his own family practice in his hometown of Alexander City, Alabama – which is where he has been for the last twenty years.

Alexander City appears to be a small, close-knit community of mainly elderly residents, only slightly bigger than Nilbog itself, where the extrovert and charismatic Hardy is well known and has become loved by everybody over the years as a respected local pillar of the establishment -- famous for dressing up as a rollerblading tooth fairy every year for the annual Christmas Parade. Best Worst Movie starts out as an endearing portrait of a small community with rather a traditional outlook on life, trying to wrap its collective mind around the idea that one of its most beloved sons has become a cult horror movie hero to lots of people up and down the country. When Troll 2 first came out on VHS and people there started to discover that their local dentist was in a horror film, especially after it started screening regularly on TV, the whole thing was at first treated as just a minor in-joke within the community. There’s an amusing interview with Hardy’s father where he admits: “we didn’t know whether to tell people about it or kind of keep it quiet” -- as though he was talking about a terrible family secret; but then the movie started to pick up a cult following which grew thanks to the early internet, and Hardy, always one for the limelight, decides to make himself known to the fan community online via his Myspace page. Before long he is being followed by the documentary makers as he travels all over the States to appear at screenings signing autographs and acting out scenes from the movie in front of wildly appreciative fans.

Hardy is shown fully enjoying every aspect of his newfound status as a doyen of bad actors in bad movies. He’s only too happy to engage with the hipster fans on their terms and laugh along with them at this ‘terrible’ movie he made all those years ago. The delight in his voice when he tells people back home in Alexander City how he was in “the worst movie ever made of all time!” is only outshone by their politely bemused reactions to this revelation, especially when, in attempting to publicise a screening In Alexander to raise funds for the local school system (“it’ll be a great fun thing to do after church”), he can’t resist the urge to act out his most iconic scenes in front of them like a small child eager to impress his disinterested adult relatives (“… and then I say: ‘you don’t piss on hospitality! I WON’T ALLOW IT!!’ ”). As it goes on, the documentary begins to add discordant notes of melancholy and irony and an almost unbearable level of pathos to the mix. When Hardy and Stephenson start to reach out to the other members of the cast and, eventually, to director Claudio Fragasso, flying him over for a special screening in Los Angeles and to be reunited with the entire cast during an event held at the original shooting location, it brings to light enough poignant mini-portraits of failed lives, loneliness, broken dreams and bitter realisations to fill a whole Betty & Joan-style Ryan Murphy mini-series, and Best Worst Movie effectively becomes the Grey Gardens of cult movie documentaries.

It is undoubtedly touching to see someone like Don Packard, who has struggled his entire life with mental health issues, given a whole new lease of life after experiencing the adulation of a fan screening; but it’s also disturbing to see Grandpa Seth -- or rather Robert Ormsby: a local theatre actor who never made another movie after this  -- sitting alone like a hoarder amid the disorganised clutter of his small house, casually telling us how he has frittered away his whole life (“but then, what else is there to do with a life but fritter it away?”) By the time Hardy tracks down his former co-star Margo Prey, who played his wife Diana in the movie, we’ve reached an almost Lynchian level of family psychodrama. Hardy and Stephenson have an awkwardly comic encounter with Margo and the ninety-five-year-old housebound mother she now cares for at home all by herself after they finally discover them living together in virtual seclusion in a house protected by a threatening ‘no trespassing’ sign. Even after breaking the ice and rekindling old memories of Troll 2 by persuading her to join them in acting out a scene from the film in her living room (with the confused mother impassively looking on), they are still ultimately unable to persuade Margo to join them for the planned cast reunion.

But by far the most awkward moments, though, during this middle section of the documentary at least, occur when director Claudio Fragasso and his screenwriter wife Rossella Drudi, fly over from Italy to America to explore for themselves the phenomenon of Troll 2’s newfound success. Fragasso clearly seems to be expecting an experience somewhat like that which greeted Lucio Fulci when the ailing director was first made aware, towards the end of his life, of the extent of the fandom then emerging around his gialli and his 80s horror movies, and got a chance to experience some of that fan worship not long before he died. What we witness instead with Fragasso, is a man gradually acclimatising to a very different situation as he learns to recalibrate his expectations and come to terms with the fact that people are laughing at things during the movie screenings that were never intended to be funny. Eventually, he convinces himself that being known as the director of the worst movie ever made is just as much of a compliment as being the director of the best movie ever made -- but not before we witness him haranguing an actor at a Q&A as he disputes their recollections of a chaotic movie shoot.

Gradually, the documentary broadens its scope to become an examination of the inherent bathos that attends the life of a cult movie actor. Disillusionment starts setting in for Hardy after a poorly attended memorabilia event in Birmingham in the UK, which produces some of the most cringe-making footage you will ever see (“we’ve come fifteen-thousand miles and no-one’s gonna frickin’ come to this table!”). But by the time he and some of the other cast members find themselves at a horror convention In Dallas, Hardy has decided that this whole scene is not really for him. For one thing, it becomes obvious that the insular small-town Alabaman in him is uncomfortable around people he considers to be ‘freaks’ and ‘weirdos’; and soon the dentist has completely overshadowed the cult movie star: “This place gives me the creeps,” he admits. “There’s tons of gingivitis around here. I guarantee you only about five per cent of these people flosses their teeth on a daily basis.” But there’s also the realisation that, like him, most of the other actors he meets at this event have only ever been known for one movie, and have often done nothing else since. The epiphany hits him: “It just seems like their whole life is built around what they did twenty or thirty years back.” It’s explained to him, as he and the others leave, that these kinds of events are “what actors do when they can’t get work. It’s basically the unemployment line for working actors.” Eventually, George Hardy, having experienced briefly what it’s like to have gained a modicum of fame, is happy to go back to his dental practice and a stable life in small-town  Alabama, although he doesn’t rule out starring in Troll 3 -- a project Claudio Fragasso is apparently hard at work on! 

Troll 2 appeals to the kind of people who appreciate that imperfection can have its own wonders and rewards; that you can basically make art out of the leftover puzzle pieces that don’t really fit together and still end up with something that works on its own terms, even if most of the world will never fully understand the attraction. This special UK edition from Eureka Entertainment contains hours of extras relating to both movies, including commentaries, making of documentaries, interviews and fan contributions – as well as a collector’s booklet. The 90-minute documentary Best Worst Movie also features over an hour of deleted scenes and interviews not included in the final edit.

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