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Dustin Putman

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Best Worst Movie  (2010)
3 Stars
Directed by Michael Paul Stephenson.
2010 – 93 minutes
Not Rated: (equivalent of an R for language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, May 27, 2010.
Now playing in select cities; opens around the country throughout the summer. For more information, visit bestworstmovie.com.
When director Michael Paul Stephenson was a 12-year-old child actor in 1990, he received a VHS copy of "Troll 2"—a low-budget horror movie he had made the previous year—as a Christmas present. He excitedly popped the tape into the VCR, and 90 minutes later was embarrassed beyond belief by the disaster he'd just watched. In the span of an hour and a half, his young career more or less went up in flames. Filmed in Utah in 1989 with primarily local actors and an Italian crew who spoke very little English, "Troll 2" is so bad it's almost inconceivable (it also, for what it's worth, has no connection to 1986's "Troll" aside from piggybacking on the name). The acting is amateurish in the extreme. The dialogue is nonsensical, stilted and ridiculous. The story—of a family who travel to a small town called Nilbog ("Goblin" spelled backwards) and discover an evil plan to turn them into plants by eating poisoned green food—is laughable. The title villains—really little people dressed in cheap Halloween masks and burlap sacks—are about as threatening as a fluffy kitten. The rest of the effects—if one can call them that—are just as terrible. And yet, there is a sincerity to the whole production that is kind of charming. No one set out to make a movie that, years later, would rate as the worst film of all time on the Internet Movie Database, and the absolute nonexistence of intentional camp mixed with the sheer awfulness of the outcome has slowly but surely turned "Troll 2" into an unlikely cult classic. It's safe to say that such a thing could never have possibly been predicted when it was first released twenty years ago.

"Best Worst Movie" is the story of the people who made "Troll 2," and their shocked discovery that an audience not only still exists for the picture, but that it is downright beloved in certain circles. It's a fascinating documentary, a look not only at the phenomenon of "Troll 2," but at the unfulfilled dreams that often pass us by as human beings and the fickle unpredictability of fame. Director Michael Paul Stephenson chooses George Hardy as his primary subject, and what a charismatic guy he is. Making a living as a highly respected dentist in Alexander City, Alabama, George's underlying wish of being an actor began and ended with his role in "Troll 2" as Michael's father, a part he won simply by going to an audition on a lark. He is flabbergasted when he finds that the movie has a passionate fanbase, and then delighted and overwhelmed as he begins to attend sold-out screenings across the country and is treated as something of a rock star. George gleefully recreates his most famous line wherever he goes—"You can't piss on hospitality! I won't allow it!"—and is understandably thrilled by the newfound adoration. He wears the "worst movie ever made" proclamation like a badge of honor. In one very funny moment, he stops at a video store to seek out a fresh copy of "Troll 2" and is directed to the "Holy Fucking Shit" section.

George knows "Troll 2" is horrible, and so do the majority of the rest of the cast who perhaps smartly leave it off their résumés. The rest are the sort of truly original, endlessly compelling characters one simply couldn't write, proving truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction. It turns out Don Packard, who portrayed the crazy-eyed drugstore owner, really was crazy, released from a mental hospital during the day to shoot his scenes. Today his closest friends are giant stuffed animals, and he speaks humorously about how he was threatening onscreen to a then-young Michael Stephenson because he truthfully had fantasies of killing him. Robert Ormsby, who played the dead grandfather who keeps appearing as manifestation to his family members, poignantly talks of his regrets that he didn't do more with his life, not willing to move to New York or Los Angeles to seek out the profession he really wanted.

When Michael and George show up in Salt Lake City to locate Margo Prey, who portrayed the mother, their visit with her is heartbreaking and hilarious all at once, the three of them reenacting scenes for the camera in between Margo's outrageous claims that "Troll 2" stands proud next to "Casablanca." "You put it up against anything Humphrey Bogart or Katherine Hepburn made, and it really fits in," she says without a hint of irony. Alas, there is a darker side to the scenes with Margo, a woman who devotes her time to her elderly mother and suffers from a crippling case of agoraphobia that has stopped her from really being able to live with the rest of the world. When George and Michael plead for her to join the rest of the cast at a nearby outdoor screening that is being publicized, Margo's response as to why she can't come is nothing if not haunting.

It always seems to be that with every rise there is bound to be a fall, and George's epiphany of what a small fish in a big pond he is comes with the one-two punch of a trip overseas followed by his attendance at a Texas horror convention. At the screenings of "Troll 2," George is the star attraction, but when placed in a situation where he mans an autograph booth alongside more iconic stars of bigger films, he is largely ignored by the passersby and doesn't seem to fit in amidst a milieu he has trouble relating to. It's sad to watch unfold, but also perhaps just as well; for all of George's friendly, good-natured affability—even his ex-wife adores him—he proves rather intolerant of the horror crowd at the conventions, not out of cruelty, but out of a lack of understanding. Meanwhile, "Troll 2" director Claudio Fragasso is at first over the moon about coming to America and seeing how liked his film is, only to become upset when the audience laughs their way through a screening when he didn't intend for it to be funny. Fragasso, clearly sporting a big head, lashes out at his cast during a Q&A session and speaks of the art of cinema as if he were Scorsese or Kubrick. Ultimately, he reasons in his mind that, "it's just as flattering to be considered the worst film as it is the best, because at least it shows you've touched people in some way."

"Troll 2" has to be seen to be believed, but "Best Worst Movie" only has to be seen because it's a genuinely fine film, made with passion and heart by a new filmmaker who once starred in a calamity with goblins and lived to fortunately tell the tale. His look at how good can sometimes rise from failure, how fame of all shapes and sizes can be a blessing and a curse, and how subjective art is as an often unexpectedly impacting medium are all perceptively touched upon. Working equally as a character study of George Hardy, the film's only disappointment of any consequence is that Michael Stephenson himself tends to stay behind the camera more often than not when he could have brought so much valuable insight to the project. He was, after all, the lead actor in Claudio Fragasso's opus. As for what makes "Troll 2" so special? Fans keep returning to it, some claiming to watch it on a weekly basis, and they all seem to have their own answer for why it is such a joy to behold. That's the beautiful thing about cinema; everyone's got their own opinions. However, as one impassioned admirer states, if you can't appreciate "Troll 2" on any level, "you have no heart." Albeit in a different context, the same thing could be said about "Best Worst Movie."
© 2010 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman