So far, I’ve tackled – via the lens of the documentary – 9/11, child migration, and a man being eaten by a bear. I think it’s about time I looked to the lighter side of the List.
This time, I wanted a break. I didn’t want to be told of yet another terrible event.
Although I suppose that depends on how liberal you’re being with the word ‘terrible.’
Let me first make one thing clear: I am an aficionado of awful films. Of course I’ve watched The Room. Of course I’ve watched Birdemic. And for goodness’ sake, have I not religiously watched every season of Mystery Science Theater 3000? A truly bad film can be a thing of hilarity and beauty, as long as it isn’t a bad comedy (which is usually unpleasant, and never funny). I love bad movies.
And yet I haven’t seen Troll 2, one of the most infamously bad movies of all. The worst-rated film of all time, this documentary tells me, although I suspect that’s not quite the case. Still, though; a shameful thing for me to have missed. And having seen Best Worst Movie, I think Troll 2 just became a must-watch.
Best Worst Movie certainly buries the lead. It starts with a wide shot of a car driving along, and then a house. It cuts to a man making a protein shake, and extolling its benefits. He sniffs a half-rotten mango, tastes it, and then throws it away. He then leaves to his car, and almost drives away with a cup of coffee still balanced precariously on the hood. “I’ve done that before,” he admits ruefully. He’s clearly something of an eccentric, but I had no idea who he was. I suspect someone who had watched Troll 2 already would’ve been grinning from ear to ear. This man is George Hardy, Troll 2’s – for lack of a better word – star.
But he is very obliquely introduced. He picks up his daughter from his ex-wife’s house. The viewer, as this point, still knows nothing about Hardy other than a scarce handful of adjectives; divorced, absent-minded, health-conscious. And then we cut to him at his place of work – he’s a dentist. And as we interview his friends, family and patients, a picture is painted of an incredibly nice guy. He gives poor kids free treatment. “If his ex-wife likes him as much as I like him,” says his ex-wife laughingly in an interview, “I don’t think anybody could not like George.” He apparently dresses up as a rollerblading tooth fairy in the Christmas parade every year – we see fuzzy amateur footage of a big, pink, tutu-clad figure falling over. By now, I think any sane viewer would love this guy. Whoever he is.
We find out in an interview with his mother. “What did you think of your son’s performance in Troll 2?” asks an anonymous voice. “Let’s just say he’s no Cary Grant,” she replies, laughing.
The documentary certainly does a good job making you like George, but I suspect this wasn’t difficult. He’s got a strong enough, generous personality that you’re invested in him and his story before the words “Troll 2″ or “bad movie” are even mentioned. It’s not until we’ve got a very good picture of who George is – with some clips from Troll 2 itself, to boot – before the documentary finally shows its hand. It’s being made by Michael Robertson, who was a child actor and played George’s son in the film. Michael, apparently addressing a webcam in his bedroom, rapidly rattles through the film’s backstory, but doesn’t give his reasons for filming this documentary about it 20 years later. Reasons that are in fact never forthcoming, much as I was curious.
As the documentary unfolds, we see interviews with the actors, most of whom are embarrassed at the film’s quality and baffled by its cult success. We see extraordinary montages of ironic ‘fans’ of the movie cheering and whooping at screenings, and lining up in the streets to watch it in a theater. We see a research group throwing their fifth annual Troll 2 party, a 31-year-old man getting a Troll 2 tattoo, and even people competing in the ‘Trollympic Games.’
I’d already noticed at this point that, in some ways, this documentary isn’t particularly well put-together. It’s certainly competent, but also has some startlingly on-the-nose visual imagery; at one point, as Michael says that Troll 2’s failure made his “childhood dreams go up in flames,” we are literally shown a photo of him as a child, going up in literal flames. Connie Young, another Troll 2 actress, talks about how she never puts Troll 2 on her resume, while close-up footage plays of her deleting Troll 2 from her resume. Cheesy music will jump in, or cut out, in an unsubtle way that’s just jarring enough to be noticeable.
But you know what? None of that matters. Because, to quote directly from my notes, this part of the documentary is “fucking joyous.”
It is a true pleasure to see the lovely George Hardy going along to cult fan-screenings, and being bewildered and happy in equal measure at the positive response. It’s lovely. He’s lovely. Have I mentioned that George Hardy is lovely? And the documentary does so well to catch a sense of this buzz that surrounds the film. There’s a kind of electric atmosphere you only get when hundreds of people – ‘fans’, as we call them – come together, all in on the same joke. Best Worst Movie captures that beautifully.
But it’s not just a wanky mock-celebration of the film. It’s an exploration of some fascinating characters – the majority of the people involved in the making of Troll 2 seem to be great eccentrics. Actor Don Packard was pulled in for the film while on leave from a mental institution – in his interview here, he tells us that during filming he “smoked a lot of pot” and “wasn’t acting.” He also says, with achingly sweet sincerity, that after his rapturous reception at a Troll 2 screening in Manhattan he’d “never [been] that thrilled in all my life […] I was never pleased with who I was, until that moment.”
And once the documentary is done exploring the buzzing excitement of the cult phenomenon, it instead starts to engage in exactly that kind of bittersweet character study. Margo Prey, Troll 2‘s leading lady, is now a complete social recluse who lives with her invalid mother – but she still claims to be “returning to acting” some day soon, while in the same breath admitting she never leaves the house because doing so is “complicated.” Claudio Fragasso, Troll 2’s Italian director and mastermind, is a visionary and an egomaniac, who still seems to think his film was a masterpiece. After attending his first fan-screening, he laments – with unironic frustration – that people “don’t only laugh at what was made to be laughed at, they also laugh at things that weren’t made to be laughed at.”
And then, of course, the documentary is also a study in George Hardy, the good-natured Utahn dentist whose brush with sort-of fame left him only wanting more. Towards the end of the film, he’s travelling his own neighbourhood, trying to drum up interest in a local showing of Troll 2 – Hardy is clearly a pillar of the community, so plenty of people turn up, but these are ordinary men and women with families and busy lives. They’re not the target audience for the “worst film ever made” – it’s a phenomenon that was only ever really going to appeal to nerds and hipsters, supremely high on the fumes of irony. Those who turn up watch the film in puzzled silence, rather than appreciative laughter. They don’t know how to watch bad movies ironically, and who can blame them? It was never going to be their thing. What Hardy consistently fails to understand is that “cult” also means “niche.”
And so Best Worst Movie ends on a surprisingly bittersweet note, with the buzz dying away and the sweet, lovely, gregarious George Hardy left, undignified, grabbing at whatever remains of the limelight. The documentary is an excellent portrait of an eclectic cast of eccentrics, and a thoughtful exploration of what it means for a film to be ‘so bad it’s good.’ But even more than that, and most surprisingly of all, the documentary presents a melancholy picture of varying degrees of loneliness and delusion. From the house-bound Margo, who sincerely believes Troll 2 to be comparable to Casablanca in quality, to the ranting Fragasso, insistent that he is a cinematic genius and the actors are the ones responsible for the film’s failure, to sweet old Robert Ormsby, who seems the only cast or crew member to truly understand Troll 2’s unique appeal, but who also freely admits to having “frittered away” his life – the stories of these disparate people, momentarily brought together by a madcap 3 weeks of filming, come together to form a surprisingly somber portrait of humanity.
Goddammit, Best Worst Movie, I was trying to watch something light-hearted for a change.
Ha. No, I’m being facetious, and Best Worst Movie is light-hearted and funny in all the right places. But it’s also quite touching, for all its absurdity. There are moments of occasional clumsiness, but my only real criticism is that I wish there was something more of Micheal himself in the film – he is present, but never seems to give his own view on the matter, despite having been himself one of the people at the heart of Troll 2. How does he remember these other actors? What was filming like for him? These are questions he refuses to answer, and most of his time on-screen is purely expository. I wanted to see more of him.
In the end, though, make no mistake – Best Worst Movie is well worth your time. By no means a masterpiece, but perhaps that’s okay. It isn’t so bad it’s good, either. Best Worst Movie is just… good. I guess it was about time these actors were involved in a film that had that much going for it.
DocTrope: I’d say that today’s DocTrope has got to be the cold open. This seems to happen a lot – at the start of a documentary, you’ll be shown something, and given absolutely no context for it until after you’ve at least had time to formulate some questions. This happened in both Which Way Home and Grizzly Man – of course, 102 Minutes needed no context at all, but that was because everyone knew what it was about already. I think the cold open is a grand way to keep viewers interested, but can be over-extended; in Best Worst Movie’s case, it was great, but could’ve probably been cut a few minutes short. At some point, a lack of context becomes frustrating rather than intriguing.