Dr. George Hardy, DDS, flashes a wide, squinty grin as he adjusts the chair of his latest patient at his dentistry practice in Alexander City, Alabama. George is universally loved in this small town. When his patients can’t pay for their dental work he treats them anyway for free and even his ex-wife has nothing bad to say about him. He’s a jovial, friendly man who bares a striking resemblance to Joe Biden, and takes great pride in letting every patient who climbs into his chair in on his favorite secret: he was the star of the worst movie ever made. That movie is the infamous TROLL 2, an unintentionally hilarious debacle of a film which was never released in theaters but developed a cult following of devoted fans who caught it on late night HBO airings. The cable showings led to underground gatherings, workplace parties and eventually public screenings in which the largely non-professional cast was suddenly being given standing ovations for their work. TROLL 2 stars Michael Stephenson as Joshua, a 12 year old boy who is haunted by the apparition of his Grandpa Seth warning him to keep his family from departing on their planned vacation to the Goblin-infested town of Nilbog. Stephenson, now 32, decided to make a documentary about the resurgent sensation of TROLL 2 on a recommendation from his therapist. He thought it would help him come to grips with having starred in such a disaster.
The result is BEST WORST MOVIE, a fascinating look into an odd film with an odd cast that turned into an odd phenomenon. Stephenson travels the country, reuniting with the film’s cast and documenting the sold-out screenings that have kept the film alive for 20 years and counting. I had the privilege of experiencing one of these screenings last night at the New Beverly Cinemas with Stephenson and Hardy in attendance. They were greeted like rock stars. Hardy, who had been drilling teeth the night before he caught a plane to LA for the screening, always wanted to be an actor but opted instead for the job security and comfort that dentistry offered. Still, the acting itch and love for applause call to him. He embraces his TROLL 2 performance, attending screenings and genre conventions with a warm smile and an eagerness to shake hands with each fan. Though the film often plays to rabid, standing room only audiences, Hardy is shown at one convention where only a handful of people show up for his TROLL 2 panel and nobody seems to have heard of the film. He moans about having to deliver his signature line from the film for the umpteenth time yet never misses an opportunity to deliver it with a smile. For the cast of TROLL 2, the shame of being a part of the film and the joy of being recognized often co-mingle.
TROLL 2 was directed by an Italian filmmaker named Claudio Fragasso, a prickly man with a permanent scowl and a propensity for being defensive about his work. While filming TROLL 2 in 1990, the cast of American actors could barely understand what he was saying due to his thick accent. He speaks English in BEST WORST MOVIE yet is still accompanied by subtitles. Claudio still believes genuinely that he made a great film and delivers a long soliloquy explaining how deep its themes are and how groundbreaking the storytelling was. Stephenson recruits him to attend some of the midnight screenings and a confused Claudio is heard wondering aloud to his wife why the audience is laughing. Claudio grumbles and heckles the fans who mock his film, yet stands with his arms spread open when the crowd applauds. Even if they’re making fun of his movie, he’s not going to miss his curtain call.
Other former cast members are introduced including Connie MacFarland (who played Holly Waits), one of the few people in the film who has continued an acting career. She does not list TROLL 2 on her resume. Margo Prey (Diane Waits) is a shut-in with glazed bug eyes and a Phil Spector fright night hairdo. Don Packard (General Store Owner) recounts filming his role in TROLL 2 while on leave from a mental institution. Stephenson’s strength is in never looking down upon or exploiting these people. His standing as an original cast member gives him a compassion and understanding that allows him to sort through his feelings about being in the film without judgment on anyone involved. The scarlet letter of TROLL 2 is something they all wear, for better or worse, whether they embrace it or run from it. He is a talented documentarian who should have a bright future.
BEST WORST MOVIE is an engaging documentary that takes an insightful look into the conflicts of shame and regret coupled with the desire to be appreciated and recognized. Hardy, Claudio and the cast will speak of TROLL 2 as if it is a burden they can’t escape, but enjoy it as a source of acclaim, even if that acclaim is of the mocking variety. Claudio has a moment where he seems to understand that his film is being mocked, but recognizes its enduring value. The film has touched an audience, even if it was their unintentional funny bone. How many films can be shown to packed audiences 20 years after their release? TROLL 2 may not be regarded for the reasons that Claudio and the cast intended, but it is regarded nonetheless. And hey, that’s something.