Friday 4 March 2011

Some thoughts on ‘Troll 2’ (1990) and ‘Best Worst Movie’ (2010).

A couple of weekends ago, I attended a sold-out screening at the Prince Charles Cinema just off Leicester Square (the closest thing central London has to a real repository theatre/grindhouse I suppose, although sadly these days they tend to stick to about 99% recent Hollywood output and the kind of senior common room ‘cult classics’ anyone with a TV has already seen a hundred times… but that’s a rant for another day). The event in question was a double bill of ‘Troll 2’, and ‘Best Worst Movie’, a documentary about ‘Troll 2’.

I had not previously seen ‘Troll 2’ and, beyond reading a few reviews on horror blogs etc, I was largely unfamiliar with the kind of word of mouth cult following that has grown up around the film. I just went along because I was curious and bored and, y’know, because I just like this kinda crap, and wanted to support the ambitions of whoever decided it was a good idea to instigate a theatrical screening of something like ‘Troll 2’, as opposed to just showing ‘Bladerunner’ or ‘Goodfellas’ or whatever for the thousandth fucking time.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, I was unable to convince anyone to come with me (“hey, d’you wanna go and see this movie called ‘Troll 2’ with me tomorrow night? I hear it’s really terrible.. tickets are £10”), so decided to go it alone. I was expecting it to be a pretty, uh, ‘niche’ event I suppose. I was completely unprepared for either the size (large theatre = totally sold out, queue down the street, people being turned away etc.) or rabid, Rocky Horror style enthusiasm of the film’s fanbase, whose good-natured whoopin’ and hollerin’ often threatened to drown out the movie’s audio altogether. And, uh, that was cool I guess – I certainly didn’t mind it, but I was somewhat taken aback. I mean we don’t get that shit going to see Truffaut movies at the BFI, y’know. Just what kind of weird cult have I been missing out on here?

Well, the film itself answered that question succinctly within its opening few minutes. For anyone who has yet to experience ‘Troll 2’ - and particularly those who may have been put off by it’s faintly obnoxious fanboy following - I would like to state my opinion that it is a genuinely extraordinary piece of work – an indescribably strange and misguided film whose appeal (for those of us who appreciate this-sort-of-thing) extends far beyond the realm of internet memes and horror-nerd injokes.

As is inevitably the case with films that attract that perennially misapplied “worst movie ever” label, ‘Troll 2’ is clearly not the ‘worst’ anything. Any dedicated fan of strange/low budget films will likely have more than a few joints on their shelves that sink far lower, whether judged in terms of technical prowess, enjoyment or coherence. As critic MJ Simpson sagely points out in ‘Best Worst Movie’, there are plenty of awful, tedious movies out there made by people who have no idea how to make a film. What is so remarkable about ‘Troll 2’ is rather the fact that it was made by people who clearly do know how to make a film – the framing, editing, cinematography etc, if not exactly world class, is at least fairly proficient. ‘Troll 2’s creators clearly had some degree of ability and common sense - and yet they still chose to put all of this shit in front of their cameras?! As Simpson puts it, it’s like a movie put together by professional filmmakers… after they suffered a severe blow to the head.

As with an Ed Wood or Ted V. Mikels movie, to laugh *at* a film like this, or to single out its moments of incompetence, is to completely miss the point - a reaction as mean-spirited and stupid as laughing at a musician because s/he ‘can’t play properly’. The delirious joy of watching something like ‘Troll 2’ arises rather from trying to put oneself in the headspace of the filmmakers, from trying to fathom the thought-processes that brought this breathtaking spectacle of otherness into being. And in the case of ‘Troll 2’, the fact that it is technically speaking quite good only serves to make this delicious feeling of bafflement all the more poignant.

(VHS Artwork via Lost Video Archive)

I won’t bother trying to summarise the many, many highlights of ‘Troll 2’ – there are other blogs you can go to for that, and besides, once I got started we’d be here all day. The whole thing is a highlight. Let’s just say that for the opening hour or so, I was utterly transfixed, convinced that, yes, this was the real deal. A genuine modern day Ed Wood movie; an earnest attempt to make a good, entertaining film in which every single element – every shot, every character, every line of dialogue – somehow ended up so cracked that it could have been beamed in from another planet.

The combinations of words, images and ideas thrown up by ‘Troll 2’ are of an order that a regularly functioning human brain will never have even considered before - a vision of purest anti-inspiration, rising from the lumbering carcass of a generic PG-13 horror quickie with such force that the result is near psychedelic. Quite what the horror schlubs and VHS hounds must have thought when they rented this thing for the first time back in 1990 expecting a bog-standard Full Moon Productions straight-to-video number (ala the entirely unconnected ‘Troll 1’), I can’t even begin to imagine. A psychotronic holy grail moment, for sure.

And furthermore, this industrial-strength cack-handed weirdness just seems to escalate as the film goes on, getting more and more over the top until it reaches a certain critical mass at about the sixty minute mark, after which my delight began to sour. Ok, I thought, it’s too late now - the filmmakers have shown their hand. I mean, this is just too fucking stupid for words. Those who have seen the film will know what I mean: the dragging-the-guy-in-the-plantpot escape scene; Grandpa Seth’s grinning reaction shots after poleaxing a goblin; the beef baloney sandwich; the whole ‘popcorn’ sequence. There is NO WAY this stuff could have been intended as anything other than total comedy. I figured that, much like Brian Trenchard Smith’s infamous ‘Turkey Shoot’, they must have watched the rushes at some point and realised what a bloody ridiculous movie they were making, then decided to just go with it, amping things up as far as they possibly could in the name of gross-out, LOL-worthy absurdity. It was still hugely enjoyable, no question, but what had begun as a beautifully mystifying piece of outsider art basically ended up turning into a Troma movie, and that made me sad.

But the brilliant thing is – I was wrong. From beginning to end, there was no self-conscious, good/bad movie irony involved in this film’s production. This shit is for real, and that is so wonderful I could cry. You see… well, this is gonna take a few paragraphs to explain…

‘Best Worst Movie’ is a slightly unconventional documentary. Not so much a ‘making of’, it’s more like an ‘aftermath’, catching up with ‘Troll 2’s cast and crew nearly twenty years later, and documenting the rise of the film’s internet-era cult following. ‘Troll 2’s cast was comprised of non-professionals and seemingly random passersby culled from the Salt Lake City shooting location, and as it turns out, at least half of them prove to be real “documentary gold” so to speak, running the gamut from lovable eccentrics to people clearly wrestling with severe psychological problems (the guy who plays the storekeeper somehow ended up appearing in the film on his days out from a mental hospital, and claims he had no idea what was going on and “was not acting” when laying down his brief but unforgettable performance).

Understandably perhaps, much of the screen-time is dedicated to these guys, but whilst it’s a remarkable bit of ‘real-people / real-lives’ filmmaking, personally I was hankering to find out about the Italian crew who actually MADE the movie. ‘Troll 2’s credited director, ‘Drake Floyd’, is clearly an anglicised pseudonym, so who in the hell was responsible, and will they want to take credit for their dubious masterwork..?

When I got my answer about forty minutes in, it was like the unmasking of a supervillian. Claudio Fragrasso?!? I fucking knew it! Now things start to make sense! Or rather, the overall lack of sense starts to make sense.

Admittedly, I’m only really familiar with Fragrasso thanks to his role as the writer and de-facto director of Zombie Flesh Eaters II and III (Zombie II & III if you live in the states), which genuinely ARE some of the worst films I’ve ever seen, but his reputation as one of the most staggeringly incompetent screen-writers in Italian exploitation cinema precedes him.

Yes, that’s right – even by the standards of Italian horror, where critically lauded, landmark films often exhibit about as much logic as a drunken shooting spree in a fairground, this guy is notorious for his sloppy, nonsensical scripting. Imagine that.

Between his work on the Zombi/Zombie/whatever films and his numerous collaborations with similarly ridiculed director Bruno Mattei, Fragrasso managed to carve out a prolific directorial career for himself through the ‘80s and ‘90s, making what I’d imagine must have been very low budget films, some of them filmed in America or featuring American ‘stars’, seemingly angling for the kind of US video release that ‘Troll 2’ eventually achieved in 1990. Apparently in 1986 he made something called ‘Monster Dog’, staring a career-low-point Alice Cooper. Be still my beating heart.

Anyway: when Fragrasso is introduced in ‘Best Worst Movie’, he wastes no time in letting us know that he takes his films very seriously. Like many of Italy’s daftest trash-auteurs, he claims straight-facedly that he wants his films to move people emotionally, and to inspire reflection on important issues. The audience here in London nearly fall off their seats when he stated in broken English that he wanted ‘Troll 2’ to address “life… and death… and the challenges that a family must overcome to stay together”, or something along those lines.

Fragrasso can’t take sole credit for the majesty of ‘Troll 2’ though. The original idea, and the surreal English-as-second-language script, are the work of his wife and frequent creative partner Rossella Drudi. Drudi seems a little more down to earth in her inspiration. “Some of my friends had recently become vegetarians,” she says, explaining the genesis of the film’s somewhat unique anti-vegan food-based horror conceit, “and this pissed me off.” Suddenly the path that led us to the deux-ex-beef baloney sandwich becomes a little clearer.

‘Best Worst Movie’ follows Fragrassi and Drudi as they travel to America to attend some cult circuit screenings of ‘Troll 2’. Initially Fragrassi seems somewhat awed to see people queuing up outside a theatre to see his movie, but after witnessing their reaction to the screening, he quickly becomes cagey. “They laugh at the parts that are funny,” he says suspiciously, “but also at the parts which are not meant to be funny?”

He seems to be pondering whether or not this is standard practice for American audiences, but slowly the penny begins to drop. “You understand nothing!” is his winningly concise response to a smirking fanboy who asks him in a Q&A session why there are no trolls in ‘Troll 2’, and by the time we get to a full-scale cast reunion/Troll 2 mini-convention at the original Utah shooting location, things have become outright uncomfortable.

The American cast members sit on a makeshift stage, sharing anecdotes about how none of the Italian crew spoke English, and how they were handed crudely rewritten script pages from day to day and forced to stick to the dialogue as written, rather than trying to adapt it into something slightly less ridiculous. Fragrasso meanwhile stalks the back of the hall, largely ignored and denied a microphone, heckling the actors. “Lies!”, he yells. “That is not true! Everyone had whole script”, “these actors, they are dogs”, “I know the way Americans speak better than they do”, and so on.

You get the impression that the director’s failure to ‘get’ his own film, or to adopt the kind of self-deprecating attitude that would be expected of an Anglo-American filmmaker in similar circumstances, cast rather a pall over the whole occasion.

(In fairness to Fragrasso, it is not only bad Italian directors who have experienced this sort of linguistic/cultural disconnection when filming in English – I was strongly reminded of the stories of Sergio Leone presenting Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef with pages of ham-fisted dialogue that they point-blank refused to say, or of his later insistence that ‘Duck, You Sucker’ was “a big phrase in America”, in spite of the legions of actual Americans desperately trying to convince him otherwise.)

Although Fragrasso comes across as a rather charmless individual, it’s hard not to feel a vast sympathy for him as he looks at the reels of the 35mm print of ‘Troll 2’ that has been made for the screenings, admitting that this is the first time he has ever seen an actual theatrical print of one of his films – “normally we just get the video”. What can he be feeling, as he reflects that after three decades of toil in the film industry, his only opportunity to see his work actually touch a projector comes because he made a movie that a bunch of Americans really like laughing at?

And the crux of the matter is of course that no matter how deluded his inflated view of his own work may seem, on some level HE IS RIGHT. Without Fragrasso’s earnest, unshakeable self-belief, ‘Troll 2’ would never have been anti-masterpiece that it is. For all its hilarious, ugly absurdity, there is something incredibly compelling about the film, something beyond mere mockery that has allowed it to strike a chord with a huge number of people.

I mean, I’ve seen a lot of objectively pretty good films in the past six months that I can barely remember at all, beyond a basic acknowledgement that they were pretty good. But I think about ‘Troll 2’ EVERY DAY. Seriously. There is something genuinely unsettling about its blunt, poorly realised imagery that makes you kinda shudder, even as you’re laughing; something unhealthily fascinating about the inhuman illogic of the script that can keep you up in the dark hours of the night, just sorta… trying to get an angle on it. After only one viewing, I feel like the whole film has lodged itself in my mind almost shot for shot, and how many movies can you say that about? Only a special few, whether for better or worse. And it is Claudio Fragrasso’s self-belief, his refusal to take the bait of cheap irony or self-parody, that has made that happen. God bless him for it.

According to a 2004 “Where Are They Now” entry on IMDB, “..after writing and directing a series of cult classics, [Fragrasso] married his high school sweetheart and settled down to a quieter life. He currently operates a conch-fishing vessel off the coast of northern Italy.”

According to a none-more-LOLworthy announcement at the end of ‘Best Worst Movie’ on the other hand, he has come out of retirement to work on - wait for it - “Troll 2: Part 2”.

So far, that has no entry on IMDB, and I pray it never gets one, because frankly the 2004 option sounds about as close to a happy ending as poor ol’ Claudio is liable to get.

“Troll 2: Part 2” would make a great name for a band though, wouldn’t it?


Sarah said...

Ruddy fantastic piece, this. Thanks for writing it. Just curious: where'd you learn that bit about Leone's confidence in 'duck, you sucker'?

Ben said...

Hey thanks - much appreciated!

I think I read that Leone bit in "10,000 Ways To Die", Alex Cox's Spaghetti Western book (well worth a read), and it also might have been mentioned in the sleeve notes/extras on my "Fistful of Dynamite" DVD...

Sarah said...

Thanks! Will definitely get hold of a copy, sounds brilliant.

Gregor said...

Interesting review; I have to admit that I might not have gotten some of your points if I hadn’t seen Tommy Wiseau’s The Room which is also worth watching for its sheer unironic conviction. From your review I get the impression that like The Room, Troll 2 was the work of a painstaking and utterly sincere yet also totally incompetent director.

Yet it is the sincerity and conviction as much as the sheer anti-talent that makes ‘The Room’ such an unforgettable work (lines like ‘I feel like I’m sitting on an atom bomb that’s about to explode’ and ‘leave your stupid comments in your pocket’ have a touch of Mayakovsky about them) and I think it would make an interesting double bill with Claude Chabrol’s Le Boucher in its depiction of a repressed savage desperately trying to conform to bourgeoisie values. However, whilst Chabrol and Jean Yanne create an ironic and enigmatic character, there is a raw sincerity and despair about Wiseau that they can’t quite match.

MJ Simpson said...

A very well-argued, objective, insightful analysis of both movies. And thanks for the name-check!

Ben said...

Hi MJ - thanks for the comment, much appreciated, and thanks for all your hard work writing about weird movies over the years too - reading your stuff in SFX all those years ago definitely played a role in setting me off on the sorry path that's led to an active appreciation of stuff like 'Troll 2'..

Gregor - sorry I've only just got around to replying to your comment! Thanks as ever for your thoughts - really interesting stuff, and always appreciated. I've not actually got 'round to watching 'The Room', but I'd be really interested to see it - will look into finding a copy.

Casey said...

I know this is WAY overdue but thanks for the amazing post! Actually, I stumbled across this not long after you wrote it and stupidly forgot to bookmark it. Took me a while to find it but I've been a fan of yours ever since! You really capture, better than most writers, why films like this have such a strange appeal. Your blog is a real inspiration, by the way. I recently wrote a review of a book about Ed Wood that I doubt I would ever have done were it not for this post. Thanks again!

Ben said...

Thanks for you praise Casey - really means a lot and I'm really glad this post & the blog in general hits the spot for you.

Drop me a link to your review and I'd love to give it a read.

All the best!

Casey said...

You are very welcome! Here's a link to the review.
Thanks so much for asking! I started this book reviewing blog because I was annoyed when amazon bought goodreads so I'm a total amateur. Having a pro like you read even one means a lot to me. Hope you enjoy!