This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
The story is well-known, Troll 2 having been skewered on bad movie websites since the early days of the Internet. The Watts family – father Michael (George Hardy), mother Diana (Margo Prey), older teen daughter Holly (Connie McFarland) and preteen son Joshua (Michael Stephenson) – have had a rough time of it, what with Grandpa Seth (Robert Ormsby) having died six months ago and Joshua regularly seeing vivid visions of Seth delivering bizarre warnings about goblins.
These warnings come thicker and faster as the Watts family embark on a holiday trip to Nilbog, a tiny rural town that happens to be the home of a gang of goblins with a remarkable knack for disguising themselves as human beings but absolutely no subtlety when it comes to coming up with town names. (Joshua only figures out the Nilbog/Goblin thing after seeing the town’s name reflected in a mirror, because ultimately he’s just not that clever a kid.) The goblins are strict vegetarians, but also love murder and anthropophagy, so they have a fun little compromise: before they kill people, they feed them an evil potion concealed in ordinary food which transmutes unsuspecting humans into vegetable matter.
There’s a wildcard factor provided by Holly’s loser boyfriend Elliot (Jason Wright) and his loser friends Arnold (Darren Ewing), Drew (Jason Steadman), and Brent (David McConnell) coming along in their RV in the vague hopes of getting laid – but they’re made short work of by the goblins and their leader, the gothy druid Creedence Leonore Gielgud (Deborah Reed). Will the Watts family be able to summon Grandpa Seth back from the dead in a necromantic seance to help out in the final conflict? Will Seth and Joshua be able to destroy the “Stonehenge Stone” which gives Gielgud her powers? And what power lies within Joshua’s special double-decker bologna sandwich?
So, yes, Troll 2 is a mess. It’s an infamous mess, largely because it was made on no budget by a bunch of non-actors delivering non-performances and directed by Claudio Fragasso, one of the schlockiest and least competent horror directors out there. (Of all the hacks working in the Italian film industry at the time, it’s really down to Fragasso and his frequent collaborator Bruno Mattei when it comes to crowning the absolute worst of the bunch.) As well as directing (with a very limited budget from producer Joe D’Amato), Fragasso wrote the script in collaboration with his wife (Rossella Drudi, whose motivation in writing it was literally just to be a bit rude about vegetarians); however, their English wasn’t really up to scratch, forcing their actors to puzzle out what the hell their various lines and monologues meant and deliver them the best they could.
The end result is a film which simultaneously suffers from threadbare production values and a set of performances which are tonally all over the place. To save money Fragasso filmed in rural Utah – probably the cheapest location he could find at the time – and used a wide range of local actors, many of whom were total amateurs. (George Hardy was a dentist before he did the movie, and went straight back to being a dentist afterwards; those who actually wanted to make a career out of acting found their careers decidedly impacted by it.)
As far as the performances go, two really stand out for me, both of whom from actors for whom this movie was pretty much their most prominent role. The prize for most enthusiastic scene-chewing pretty much has to go to Deborah Reed’s turn as Creedence, which she manages to keep cranked up to 11 despite the fact that Fragasso keeps messing around with how her character is supposed to look and behave.
Creedence appears in three forms (aside from her goblin form in which she is, of course portrayed by one of the little people hired to wear the goblin costumes). There’s the “conventionally attractive hottie” form she transforms in to off one of Elliot’s idiot friends, as is pretty much inevitable in a 1980s movie with a shapeshifting lady involved. As is typically the case with such things, you’d expect her other forms to be less conventionally attractive, but Fragasso and his costume department seem to have wavered back and forth on how to achieve that. The first “creepy witch” form she’s deployed in seems to be going for “unattractive, strange, doesn’t quite know how to present herself”, but actually most of this ensemble works for me pretty well on a prurient instinctual level save for the fact she’s apparently not brushed her teeth for a while. (That might just be me though.)
Then there’s this one, where they dial back the accessories a lot and do a slopper job with the makeup and try to make it look like her lips are falling off in chunks (when they remember to do that bit – her oral hygiene varies over this movie from “atrocious, lip balm and dentistry badly needed” to “basically OK”).
There’s enough lack of continuity in the rest of the movie to make me wonder whether they actually just plain changed up her “creepy witch form” character design partway through, having decided that the first one wasn’t quite hitting the right note (or perhaps having damaged or lost the original costume), and didn’t bother reshooting to keep it consistent.
The other actor who stands out here is George Hardy, who brings this weird sort of amateurish earnestness to his role which I can’t quite declare as being good acting but I’m not sure whether it’s bad acting either – his character is basically a weird, dorky dad, he himself is a weird dorky dad, all he has to do is go out there and be himself and he sort of produces something which has a sense of verisimilitude to it. There’s a bit following the infamous sequence in which Joshua pisses on the family dinner to stop the Watts being contaminated by the goblin potion, where Michael yanks him upstairs to his bedroom and tells him off, and he goes to adjust his belt and (with Diana having urged him not to hit Joshua) you think he’s about to whip off his belt and flog the poor child, but actually he just declares he’s taking his belt in a notch so that he’ll be distracted from the hunger pangs caused by missing dinner. It’s hokey, but there’s this innocent charm to it which pretty much sums up Hardy’s whole performance – and, as we see in Best Worst Movie, his actual real-life personality.
Coming out in 1990 meant that Troll 2 could emerge, commercially fail, and find its way to innumerable video shop bargain bins by the time the Internet was really starting to take off – and if there’s one thing the early Internet crowd loved, it was cheesy so-bad-it’s-good movies. (Witness, for instance, how the Internet audience eagerly embraced Mystery Science Theater 3000.) Webpages showcasing bad movies propagated, and Troll 2 was rich fodder for them. Naturally, people browsing those sites sat up and paid attention, sought out Troll 2, and between that and good old-fashioned word of mouth the cult gathered pace.
By the mid-2000s it hit such proportions that Michael Stephenson, AKA Joshua, could bring together a bunch of his old pals from the cast and take the movie on tour, receiving rapturous acclaim from their adoring public. Stephenson documents this process and unpacks the making of the movie and the ultimate fate of the prime movers on Best Worst Movie, a documentary which is a far more thought-provoking and interesting watch than Troll 2 itself and might well be the most fascinating by-product of the franchise. Troll 2 by itself is little more than fodder for a fun bad movie night; Troll 2 seen in conjunction with Best Worst Movie reveals hidden depths and a far more worthwhile story.
As well as telling the story of the movie and the cult fandom it’s gained, the documentary is clearly an exercise in Stephenson exorcising his personal demons – he tells a story of how, what with the movie never getting a cinema release and sneaking out on VHS in an almost ashamed fashion, he didn’t get to see it until he got a copy of the VHS for Christmas 1991 – and he was crushingly disappointed with the final product, to the point where it severely damaged his drive to even have an acting career. (After a few other roles he seems to have shifted entirely into directing, and on the basis of Best Worst Movie seems to have found his niche there.)
On another level the documentary has a much more wholesome angle – it’s basically Stephenson reconnecting with the friends he made during a funny, silly childhood experience he had, and in particular letting Hardy have the time of his life on tour enjoying his infamy. Stephenson puts Hardy very much at the centre of the documentary – it opens with a day in his ordinary life, including a look at his work as a dentist. He’s clearly good at his job as far as his manner with his patients go – many of them seem to be children and he has a very endearing manner of dealing with them which must make their trips to his surgery much less daunting and scary than it might otherwise be.
The sequence finally broaches the subject of Troll 2 when Stephenson directly asks Hardy’s mother how she reacted on initially seeing it, and she can’t help but laugh – and the same’s true of all his hometown friends and acquaintances, who clearly have a lot of affection for him but also can’t help but smile at the silliness of it all – but not in a cruel or nasty way. In the midst of the intro sequence showcasing Hardy’s everyday life, there’s a shot of his little bit he does during his home town’s annual parade, where he dresses as a rollerskating tooth fairy and skates around for people’s amusement, and you can really see that somewhere inside Hardy there’s still this drive to entertain people and make them smile, and in a way his film career’s done just that.
The documentary’s a bit more ambiguous in its treatment of Claudio Fragasso, who wants to insist that his movie tackles major themes and has high artistic value and doesn’t seem to be too happy with the “best worst movie” appellation. He’s not so unhappy that he won’t show up to a screening and soak in the applause – but he gets pissy when people ask him questions about major holes like why it’s called Troll 2 when it never even mentions trolls, and insists to Stephenson that it is, in fact, a good movie.
From there the movie slips into the cast discussing Fragasso and the way he shot down many of their attempts to try and fix the stilted dialogue, weird script, and other issues, but were just faced with him shutting them down and bluntly insisting to them that, say, he knew how American teenagers talked better than the teenage and close-to-teenage actors did. There’s a gloriously cathartic sequence where Hardy, Fragasso, Drudi and Stephenson revisit the house where the film was shot, and Hardy is talking through one of the exterior scenes they did and asking questions about plot holes and issues with his motivation, and you can see how it’s dawning on Hardy that no, he wasn’t losing his mind during the making of the movie, it really was as weird and bizarre and ass-backwards a way of making a movie as it seemed to everyone at the time and Fragasso really wasn’t in control of things.
The cast generally take seem to take the view, as one of them says, that they understood less and less of what was going on in the movie the more the shoot progressed; as well as a language barrier, it also feels like there may well have been a bit of a culture clash going on, with Fragasso’s very direct and forceful personality causing him to not get on well with that unfailingly polite and pleasant stance which is so closely associated with the Mormons and their neighbours in Utah. Hardy and Stephenson cleverly manage to illustrate Fragasso’s directing style by restaging iconic scenes from Troll 2 under Fragasso’s direction – which includes the joyous sight of Hardy successfully giving a fully-grown Stephenson a fireman’s lift, apparently as easily as he did back when Stephenson was little, and charging about the house’s cramped corridors with him over his shoulder. Both Stephenson and Hardy are clearly having the time of their life, but Fragasso just seems grumpy and impatient – and I can’t help but think that that must have been how it was during the original shoot.
Eventually, Fragasso loses his patience with the entire thing towards the end of the documentary, when the tour concludes at a Troll 2 convention held in the very Utah town where it was filmed; he gets angry and pissy at the actors during their Q&A session and starts loudly interrupting from the audience – but in his last word he points out that the thing he really hates is a cold, emotionless movie, and whatever criticism you level at Troll 2 you can’t really call it either of those things.
As their tour continues, Hardy and Stephenson make contact with a cross-section of their other cast members, with some visits being heartwarming and some being desperately sad. Don Packard, who plays the sinister convenience store owner, talks frankly about how he had severe mental health issues and was off his face on drugs for much of the shoot, and how he had a difficult life then and has had a difficult time since but has derived a lot of happiness and peace with himself from the warmth with which the fandom has treated him. Margo Prey, AKA Diana, cuts a sadder figure; living an apparently reclusive life that seems to have in part been affected by her need to care for her extremely frail mother but also is suggestive of unaddressed personal demons. Hardy and Stephenson do another little restaging of a scene there, but in this case it seems more like an act of kindness than an attempt to draw anything out, a bid to reconnect with Margo however briefly. (There’s a heartbreaking moment towards the end where they try to see if she wants to go to the Troll 2 convention, but she feels unable to go and talks about just disappearing off to a place where she can be alone forever.)
The documentary’s final act kicks off following Hardy trying to set up a screening in his current home town in Alabama, evangelising it with all the earnestness of the most rabid members of the fandom. It’s a bit more of an ambiguous side of him than the one we’ve seen so far; yes, he’s still having fun with it, but at the same time there’s a certain air of desperation there in his bid to get as many of his neighbours and patients and friends to come to the screening as possible. The cult clearly hasn’t reached this Alabama small town, and many of Hardy’s neighbours don’t really know what to make of it.
One of Hardy’s friends call him “the Patch Adams of dentistry” in the wake of the screening, and perhaps that’s the best summation of his personality – he clearly cares about his day job, but he’s also got this love of entertaining and acting which was mostly frustrated, save for this one odd little anomaly called Troll 2, and by the end I can entirely understand why George would have this really strong drive to share the movie with his hometown peers. It’s his big chance to demonstrate to all of them that there’s more to ol’ George Hardy than meets the eye, that there’s a hidden depth to him and a side to his life which isn’t summed up solely by his day job. It’s perhaps appropriate that Robert Ormsby – AKA Grandpa Seth, who still resides in Utah – pops up at this point to give some words of wisdom of how if, like him and like Hardy, you’re keen on becoming an actor but don’t want to up stakes to go to the major centres like LA or New York, you’re kind of screwed.
There’s a bittersweet tone to the end of the documentary; as Hardy and Stephenson continue to tour, Hardy’s faced with a couple of difficult experiences at conventions – at a general fandom convention in the UK the Troll 2 panel is attended by pretty much nobody, and at a US horror convention he finds himself confronted with a sobering experience when he sees a wide range of actors who appeared in one horror movie twenty years ago and then make this ongoing side gig of turning up to convention after convention trading on their one brief brush with fame… and he recognises the same behaviour in himself and, admirably, decides to walk away from it.
Having done his little tour and had his little homecoming, Hardy realises that his Troll 2 schtick has gotten old and decides to back off on the touring and promotion save for the odd little appearance at Troll 2-specific events, where he seems a bit more comfortable – and whilst he might have tried to keep it going to a slightly obnoxious extent, I think we should be all so lucky to have the capacity for self-awareness that Hardy has. (Goodness knows that plenty of people engage in much worse behaviours to a much longer extent.) By the end he’s gone back to his regular life, doing his dentistry, sailing his boat, spending time with his family and putting on his skating tooth fairy act for the Christmas parade.
Perhaps the secret factor which has driven the Troll 2 cult to the heights it’s reached is what you might call the George Hardy factor – like Hardy himself, you can’t help but smile along with it, and like Fragasso insists far from being a cold, emotionless, calculating affair, it’s got this sincere, warm belief in what it’s doing, despite the fact that what it’s doing is kind of daft. Even when it’s being crass in the typical manner of the era, as with the corn-based sex scene, it does so in such a bizarrely goofy way that it endears itself to you even as it comprehensively fails at attaining whatever effect it was going for. The jokes aren’t funny in the way they are intended to be funny, and the horror isn’t scary, but it’s some absolutely hilarious shit, and whilst some of the fans highlighted in Best Worst Movie are doing that insufferable hipster irony thing, many are just appreciating it without a shred of irony whatsoever, simply watching it and allowing themselves to enjoy it even though on a formalistic level there is no reason it should be at all enjoyable.
If you want to dip into the morass of the Troll franchise, I can recommend the recent Eureka! Blu-Ray release, which compiles both Troll and Troll 2 and includes Best Worst Movie as a bonus disc.