In 1989, in a small town in rural Utah, an Italian film company shot a horror film that would eventually be released under the title Troll 2—I say “eventually”, because the film was originally titled Goblins. This initial title made a lot of sense, because the film is in fact about a town full of goblins that terrorize and attempt to devour a vacationing middle-class American family. Hence: Goblins. Troll 2 makes comparatively little sense as a title, largely due to the rather conspicuous fact that the film does not, in actuality, feature any trolls whatsoever.1 And needless to say, it is not an actual sequel to the original Troll in any meaningful way.
From even just this scant information I’ve imparted to you, you should be able to get a good sense of the kind of film Troll 2 is.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to 1989, with the Italians out in Utah filming a low-budget horror movie (with a correspondingly low-budget cast). And so the thing gets shot, everyone parts ways, the Italians fly back home, a movie gets cut together. Somewhere along the way the name changes from Goblins to Troll 2. It gets released to VHS. The story of a thousand low-budget flicks, right?
Well, not quite.
By way of explanation, let me show you a chart. It is reasonably simple chart, plotting how good a movie is2 versus how entertaining it is.
As you can see on the right side of the graph, high-quality films positively correlate to highly entertaining films. Pulp Fiction is fun to watch because it is by most reasonable measures a fantastic film. The Fifth Element: also very good.
Moving left, the films get a bit worse, and are correspondingly less fun to watch. Die Hard 2? Okay, but not great. Most movies fall into this category.
A bit further down the curve, there’s an interesting bump. By most objective measures, Armageddon was a pretty bad film. But much like Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing”, there is also something undeniably great about it. We are firmly in the realm of guilty pleasures. On an absolute scale, it’s still nowhere as entertaining as Pulp Fiction; but it is more entertaining than Over the Hedge, even though the latter is in some sense less of an Affront to the Art of Cinema.3
At some point, though, enough is enough. Case in point: most rational people simply cannot derive 80 minutes of enjoyment from Look Who’s Talking Too.
So far, I have been using Bruce Willis films as examples. But the inclusion of Bruce Willis (if even just as a voice actor) adds some baseline level of quality to a film. This baseline I call the Willis threshold; there are many, many films that fall below it.
Occupying the realm far to the left of the Willis threshold are movies like Manos: the Hands of Fate: unredeemably bad films, the sort you hesitate to call “films” in the first place, nearly-unwatchable dreck made only barely palatable by the inclusion of mocking commentary a la MST3K.
But the most striking part of my chart is the massive spike just to the left of the Willis threshold. This is the category of film that I’m most interested in for this post, and it is the category of film that Troll 2 squarely falls into.
Look at that chart! On an absolute level, Troll 2 is comparable to The Fifth Element in terms of entertainment value! It is So Bad It’s Good. I.e., it’s awesomely bad.
For this sort of film, it’s kind of pointless trying to convince someone of its awesomeness by describing the plot. I could tell you that it’s about a family that gets terrorized by a group of vegetarian goblins; or that the goblins are commanded by a spastic druid; or that the goblins keep trying to turn people into plants by hiding conspicuous green slop in their food; etc., etc., etc. I could try and tell you all these things, but they don’t really convey the genius4 of Troll 2.
Which is all to say: if you haven’t seen it yet, what the hell are you waiting for?
I saw Troll 2 for the first time two weeks ago. I had occasion to see it because a documentary called Best Worst Film—about Troll 2 and its cult following—was playing just around the block from me. The filmmakers were perspicaciously screening Troll 2 later that night in the very same theater, and after catching the documentary I convinced my friend Cliff to join me at midnight to see the cult hit.
I’ve told you about how great Troll 2 is, but I also want to spend some words on Best Worst Movie. It was a lot of fun to watch, and definitely entertaining.5 It focuses primarily on the charismatic George Hardy, who played the patriarch of the ill-fated vacationing family in Troll 2.6 We catch up with him and other former cast and crew members, discovering how their film has morphed into a cult phenomenon and how this transformation has affected their lives. The whole documentary is pretty lighthearted and fun, and it’s really hard to dislike Mr. George Hardy.
Most everyone seems to be in on the joke—that is, they fully recognize and have generally come to terms with Troll 2’s position on the curve I charted above. But this isn’t the case for everyone. There are a few awkward moments involving the director (an Italian, typecast as the eccentric foreign filmmaker), who seems unwilling to see his film for what it is. Honestly, he comes off as a bit of a stooge—a portrayal that’s probably unfair but is admittedly amusing.
Let me emphasize that the documentary is, essentially, fluffy fun. It does a great job at capturing the verve and electricity you feel at a midnight movie screening. At heart, it’s a poppy expression of fanboyish enthusiasm.
The documentary has are a few more poignant moments, but they really aren’t the focus; they tend to get swept up in the rest of the film. It’s a bit of a shame, really, because at times it feels as though a very human undercurrent of sadness or regret gets steamrolled by the ironic joy of this cult phenomenon. For example, in one particularly moving scene, the actor who played Grandpa Seth in Troll 2 (now an old man) reflects resignedly upon on his life and asks: “What is there to do with a life besides fritter it away?” It’s a rather shocking revelation, but it gets swept aside pretty quickly.
Then again, I can understand why the filmmakers didn’t focus on this stuff more: it’s a total downer. Still, the film probably would have felt more robust if these issues had been examined more deeply.
If Best Worst Movie is showing near you anytime soon, I’d heartily recommend you go out and see it with a friend or two. And if they’re showing Troll 2 later that same day, I’d highly recommend you make an evening of it.
- I guess you could argue that trolls and goblins are kinda-sorta the same thing. They’re magical-ish things, with leathery skin and ugly faces. Nasty and brutish and generally unpleasant for human-folk to be around. But let me be clear: the creatures in the film are referred to exclusively as “goblins”; the word “troll” is never once uttered. ↩
- I.e., based on the measures we normally use in critique: Is each constituent element of the film—the acting, writing, cinematography, etc.—executed competently? Do these components work well together? Ultimately, does the film succeed at what it sets out to accomplish? ↩
- I hope my use of Capital Letters makes it clear that I am being Very Serious about Very Important Issues here. ↩
- Anti-genius? ↩
- In a good way: it falls squarely on the right side of my curve. ↩
- Tidbit of coolness: George Hardy was touring with the Best Worst Movie theatrical run, and introduced the Troll 2 showing that me and Cliff were at! ↩