About twenty years ago, director Claudio Fragasso and his wife, screenwriter Rossella Druti, ventured into the pleasant rural community of Morgan, Utah, to make a horror thriller that would be remembered forever. They unquestionably succeeded, but not in the way they had originally planned. Since its release, Troll 2 has frequently been regarded as the worst movie ever made. It’s difficult for those who have never seen the film to comprehend the sheer terribleness of filmmaking on display, so here’s a great montage of the film’s “best” moments for the uninitiated [WARNING: Video is NSFW]:
Normally, a film this bad would vanish into the ether (AKA your local Wal-Mart bargain bin) never to be seen or heard from again, but in the ensuing decades, Troll 2 has inexplicably found a devoted cult following. Director Michael Stephenson, who plays the painfully annoying lead boy character Joshua Waits in Troll 2, has spent most of his life trying to escape from the shadow of the film. But in Best Worst Movie, which recently screened at Independent Film Festival Boston (and will be screening tonight and this weekend at HotDocs in Toronto), Stephenson turns the camera on himself and tracks down the actors from the film to investigate the phenomenon of Troll 2. The results are exciting and funny, but also tinged with sadness. In any case, Best Worst Movie is a great documentary, a must-see for those who are Troll 2 fans (and if you’re not in the latter category, I would recommend you see Troll 2 first to truly grasp its greatness). In creating this film, Stephenson has truly broken out as an exciting new filmmaker.
Best Worst Movie begins by taking us through a day in the life of George Hardy, the actor who plays father Michael Waits in Troll 2. At this point in his life, Hardy has a successful dental practice, and also happens to be an ultra-gregarious nice guy who body-builds in his free time. We then begin to learn about the other actors who were involved with the production, discovering what they felt about the movie (it’s universally a shameful period of their lives) and what they are doing now. As Troll 2 fever sweeps the nation and packed screenings of the film are populated by adoring fans, we experience the excitement through George’s eyes, as he greets those who love his performance and delivers lines from the film to thunderous applause.
The film’s strongest point is the way it depicts its quirky cast of characters. The lives of all the actors involved in the film have taken wildly divergent paths. While some, like Hardy, have gone on to be successful, others live in bizarre conditions and have endured some taxing circumstances. I won’t give any of it away since the film’s pleasures lie in learning about each one of these people, but it’s fascinating to see how a film (especially a film as bizarre as Troll 2) can bring people together for a short period of time and create a shared common experience that can last a lifetime. Stephenson, along with his DP Katie Graham, displays a keen cinematic eye here; he understands that a simple, silent shot of an interviewee in his living room surrounded by mounds of newspapers, knicknacks and paraphernalia strewn about does more to convey a person’s life than five minutes of talking-head exposition.
What I love about Best Worst Movie is how it is able to simultaneously capture the excitement of being a star on the festival screening circuit as well as the pathetic nature of continuing to cash in on something you did 20 years ago. Hardy is perhaps the best character to experience these developments with. His child-like giddiness is infectious, which makes his disappointment at the darker side of cult fame equally mood-shattering. I met George Hardy at IFFB, when he randomly sat down next to me during a screening of Winnebago Man:
I can tell you that Hardy is just as charming in person as he is in the film. There was never anything that felt opportunistic to me about George’s excitement about his Troll 2 fame, and that’s why there’s a refreshing purity about the fact that he revels in it during Best Worst Movie.
Best Worst Movie also contains a thought-provoking meditation on what it is that causes terrible movies to be cherished. Not every bad movie becomes a cult hit, but there’s an earnestness to a film like Troll 2 that most of us find compelling. Director Claudio Fragasso possessed an almost-delusional honesty and sincerity in creating the film, and even though he failed, he failed so spectacularly that the resulting film has provided joy and laughter with its campy awfulness.
Michael Stephenson has acted in a few other TV shows, but he has contributed to the creation of what I would say are two lasting and significant cultural works: Troll 2, and now Best Worst Movie, which is about Troll 2. I earnestly hope that this film marks the beginning of an illustrious new career for Stephenson, and that he will go on to transcend the material where he first got his start. In the meantime, Best Worst Movie is a funny, touching, insightful documentary that anyone can enjoy.
Here’s the teaser trailer for Best Worst Movie: