The Fame Monster
I decided to not see Troll 2 before watching Michael Stephenson’s documentary about its bizarre following, Best Worst Movie. I’m still not sure if that was a good idea or a bad one.
For the handful of people like me who managed to avoid seeing Troll 2 in its endless loops on HBO in the 90s, or during its cult resurgence in this decade, Best Worst Movie offers a peek at what looks to be a hilariously bad horror/fantasy. We see clips, fan re-enactments of famous scenes, and endless quoting of favorite lines—for the uninitiated, this feels like showing up at an awesome frat party in a foreign country; halfway through the movie, I was tempted to pause it and pull up Troll 2 on Netflix Streaming.
But I was curious to see if Stephenson had made an actual documentary or just a really long fan film. He did both, which is a problem.
A little backstory on Stephenson: He was the child star of Troll 2, the 1990 direct-to-video monster movie about a family who is terrorized by a goblin cult while on vacation. He thought this would be his big break in Hollywood, but the film was never released in theatres and its abysmal quality, over time, earned it the unofficial title of the worst movie ever made. Examining what that kind of a psychological and professional blow does to a child actor is the perfect subject for a movie; but Best Worst Movie isn’t about that.
In the middle of the documentary, we meet Troll 2’s director, Claudio Fragasso. He’s a proud Italian filmmaker who returns to America on hearing about the wild success his film has enjoyed at midnight screenings and viewing parties over the years. The problem is that he believes the praise to be genuine and not ironic; he can’t understand why the sold out shows echo with laughter during scenes that weren’t meant to be funny. Fragasso tours the country with Stephenson and the rest of the Troll 2 cast as they sign autographs and take audience questions; his disposition erodes from one of amused joviality to bitterness—at one point, he interrupts a cast member who’s trashing the film and accuses him of being a shitty actor in a good movie. But this isn’t Fragasso’s story, either.
No, Best Worst Movie opens and closes with George Hardy, who played the dad in Troll 2. He’s a dentist with a practice in Alabama now, and he loves telling everybody about the little movie he made back in Utah twenty years ago. Hardy is a beloved local character who dresses up as a roller skating ballerina for the Christmas parade and does occasional charity work for poor children. When he gets wind of all the Troll 2 hype, he and Stephenson set off for appearances in New York, Chicago, L.A., and a bunch of other markets with thriving trash-cinema communities. It’s clear that Hardy loves the attention and is touched by his fans’ appreciation of his truly awful acting.
The first half hour of Best Worst Movie focuses on Hardy’s appearances, and features lots of testimonials from fans. And as nice and as big a presence as he is, there came a point when I wondered if the whole documentary would keep up this “DVD Extra” vibe—or if I’d be invited to re-engage with what I thought was a movie with a point.
Things pick up a bit with the introduction of Fragasso, but then we detour into the life of Margo Prey, who played the mom in Troll 2. She’s become a reclusive crazy cat lady, taking care of her ancient mother and doing her best to maintain the creepy plastic face she’s cultivated over the decades. Prey is the one cast member who refuses to join the reunion circuit; we sense it’s out of some kind of weird agoraphobia, but it could also be that she’s just nuts.
Prey’s section isn’t really about her, though; this is George Hardy’s gig, after all, and his freak-show co-star is used mainly as a prop for him to bounce sad/startled looks off of.
We move abruptly to a memorabilia convention in England, which Hardy has been promised will be huge for him and co-star Darren Ewing. One gets the feeling this is their first time out of the country—at least for Hardy—and it’s kind of devastating to see that he garners zero interest and less recognition than John Schneider from The Dukes of Hazzard.
Undeterred, Stephenson, Ewing and Hardy visit the Texas Fearfest horror convention, sure of their ability to draw a crowd back in the good ol’ US of A. Not even close. As the con patrons brush past the Troll 2 table, we see Hardy’s easy-going smile crack and then shatter. He spends most of the con talking up celebrities from the Nightmare on Elm Street sequels and then bad-mouthing them behind their backs. As the time plods on, he wanders the floor, proclaiming his disdain for horror movies and writing off the fans as freaks that “probably don’t even floss regularly.” In the end, Hardy and company break down their table early and split.
After two bust events, Hardy heads back to his dental practice and declares that he’s done with the limelight. He appreciates his friends and family and has no use for the flashiness of Hollywood. But, yes, he would love to star in Troll 3.
This is as close to an arc as we get in Best Worst Movie, and I hate to say that Stephenson put his eggs in the wrong basket by giving the picture over to Hardy—but it’s true. While Hardy is a charismatic and disturbing figure, his is not nearly as interesting a story as some of the others happening in the background of the documentary. And that, I think, is the problem with the movie as a whole: It touches on fandom, the fleeting nature of fame, the frustration of being a C- or D-tier actor, and what it means to create something with passion only to have it be revered as crap. But it only touches on these things; we rarely get past the surface of one issue before being thrust into another.
The hype around Best Worst Movie is its strongest selling point, and I have a hunch that fans of Troll 2 were so jazzed that someone would make a movie about them and their beloved film that they looked past the shabbiness of the final product (see also Scott Pilgrim vs. The World).
Truly great documentaries about geekdom like The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters and Trekkies focus on the fans’ obsessions and really get into the longevity and attraction of their respective pop cultural totems. Best Worst Movie feels like Michael Stephenson’s calling card as a documentarian, and less like a documentary made by someone genuinely interested in their subject. It should have either been a movie about the cult of Troll 2 or the people that made Troll 2; this middle ground is hard to pull off; there’s an opportunistic quality that prevents the movie from digging into the peripheral characters’ lives; lives that, we are teased, may be far more interesting and dark (What of the 24 other English-language films Fragasso directed? Did Prey ever have a chance as an actress? What kept Robert Ormsby—who played Grandpa Seth—from leaving his small town and pursuing his dream of acting, instead of “wasting” his life and talents? What is it about bad movies that attracts legions of fans? What does Troll 2 have over other awful cult movies like The Room? ).
Best Worst Movie is a middling sketch for a better film. I’ll give the movie points on accomplishing one thing, though: It made me really want to see Troll 2—if only to see if it’s truly worse than the movie that was made about it.