One of the strangest things about film fans is the way we are all, on occasion, gluttons for punishment.
I’m not sure what it is about truly wretched films that draws film fans to watch and rewatch them for pleasure, but it’s a near-universal truth that every now and then, it’s an almost chemical pleasure to put on something physically painful just so you can gasp at the ineptitude and laugh yourself silly. There’s a reason “Mystery Science Theater 3000” hit a nerve with all sorts of movie geeks when it premiered… it felt like someone took the private parties that so many of us had already thrown and turned it into a weekly TV show. I still remember the headaches I would get from watching films like “Flight To Mars” with my buddy Jake back in high school, and just howling the entire time as we would riff on the movies.
For many people, the pinnacle of bad movies is “Troll 2,” a mind-bogglingly inept exercise in confusion that has actually built a cult over the last decade or so, and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that someone decided to make a documentary about the movie and its growing audience. What does surprise me is that “Best Worst Movie” manages to be more than just a record of a bunch of snickering hipsters beating up on an easy target, and it actually serves as a reminder that many bad movies started as someone’s attempt to make something great, and that behind every phenomenon, there are real people who had no idea what impact their movie would have when unleashed on the world. And what surprises me most of all is that the person who made the documentary, which seems remarkably clear-eyed, turns out to be the young actor who played the little boy in “Troll 2” all those years ago, Michael Stephenson.
This is another of those movies that has been playing at festivals all year long. I saw it at South By Southwest in the spring, it was playing at Toronto when I was there, and then it just played the AFI Fest in Los Angeles on Saturday night. It’s a great movie to see with a festival crowd, since that is (presumably) a very film literate crowd in the first place, and “Best Worst Movie” is as much about our reasons for loving movies as “Cinema Paradiso” was.
“Troll 2” has been building a cult audience over the last decade or so in a serious way, fueled by special screenings and internet buzz, and if you’ve never seen it, may I suggest you remedy that situation right now?
I love that the same logo that’s in front of “North By Northwest” and “The Wizard Of Oz” is in front of “Troll 2.” That’s wonderful on so many levels. When I was a very young film fan, I thought if you saw a studio logo in front of something, it guaranteed a certain level of quality. Obviously, I’ve been disabused of that notion, and it’s because of things like “Troll 2,” where you wonder how that distribution deal ever happened. It was the ’80s, though, so I’m perfectly willing to blame cocaine. Mountains and mountains of cocaine. And before you disagree, can you explain “Troll 2” some other way?
Didn’t think so.
What “Best Worst Movie” does first is illuminate the way cult movies become cult movies, and if that’s all there was to the film, it would be worth watching. There are cult movies that were genuinely great but that bombed commercially for one reason or another, and over time, they gradually pick up the fan base they originally deserved. But there are other films, perfect storms of ineptitude, that pick up an audience because one person sees it and has to share it with another person because they can’t believe what they saw, and that’s exactly what “Troll 2” is.
Part of what makes the film so staggering as an experience are the performances, particularly the lead role of the dad, played by George Hardy. He’s the main focus of Stephenson’s documentary, too. After “Troll 2” came out, Hardy returned to work as a small-town dentist, and it’s obvious from the footage of him here that he lives a good life, that he’s a valuable part of his community, and that he has found his real role in life. It’s also obvious that George Hardy wants, more than anything, to be a famous actor.
The human story in “Best Worst Movie” is all about George Hardy coming to terms with this painful memory, this chapter of his past. He honestly believed that “Troll 2” was great, and that he was great in it, and that he was going to have a new career once the film came out. Believed it, with all his heart. And when it didn’t happen, he was hurt by it. He doesn’t live his daily life like he’s hurt by it, but at the start of the film, George’s interviews are shot through with a melancholy about what might have been. When he’s approached by his former movie son about participating in some of these “Troll 2” screenings, he’s eager to be part of the budding phenomenon on any terms. He doesn’t care why people are watching the film; he’s just glad to be invited. He enjoys it at first, but the more he’s around the crowds, the harder it gets to keep laughing and enjoying himself.
Margo Prey, who played Michael’s mother in “Troll 2,” is almost George’s polar opposite. She doesn’t want any part of any renewed spotlight, and in the few scenes where Michael and George visit her to try to get her to participate in one of the screenings of the film, she comes across as deeply broken, a woman who absolutely does not belong in the public eye. If she were exposed to the withering hipster scorn heaped on the film at one of those screenings, it would most likely destroy what little fragile hold she still has on sanity.
For anyone familiar with the amazing Alamo Drafthouse and the fine folks who work there, Zack Carlson’s presence in this documentary is a nice surprise, and if you don’t already know him, you’ll get a good sense from this film of why he’s such a vital and interesting programmer. I don’t think my tastes align directly with Zack’s… hell, in some cases, I’m sure we’re almost completely opposites… but I love the passion Zack has for the things he loves, and the way he’s embraced this platform he has to champion movies. He puts together an amazing Rolling Roadshow experience for “Troll 2,” and he’s also a big part of helping George travel to various other screenings to see the fans. When George reaches the end of his rope, you can see how much it bothers Zack that this guy suddenly feels like the butt of the joke. I don’t believe Zack watches any movie so he can feel superior or so he can shit all over the people who made it. He is a firm believer that there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure. If you take pleasure from something, why should you feel guilty about it? If you like it, you like it, and with something like “Troll 2,” I think it’s hard for some people to even explain the joy it brings to them.
Funny, sincere, and never condescending, “Best Worst Movie” is a great look at the way films take on lives of their own, and the way cult films flourish. I’m not sure what plans there are for a real theatrical run or for home video, but hopefully you will get a chance to see the movie sometime soon, and if that chance arrives, make it a priority.
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