Troll 2 fans (Trollies?) dressed up in homemade costumes at a screening party.
Idioms and old adages and conventional wisdom be damned. Michael Stephenson and George Hardy have successfully polished a turd. The director and star, respectively, of the documentary Best Worst Movie, Stephenson and Hardy have managed to make something moving and wonderful out of Troll 2, a film considered by many to be among the worst ever committed to VHS tape. And unlike the rabid cult fanbase Troll 2 has eventually accrued since it was released in 1990, Stephenson and Hardy’s stakes for salvaging the film were somewhat higher. After all, they starred in it.
In 1989, Stephenson, then a ten-year-old child actor hoping to be the next kiddie horror star, and Hardy, an Alabama dentist bitten by the acting bug, landed the lead roles in Troll 2. Directed by Italian exploitation filmmaker Claudio Fragasso (under the pseudonym Drake Floyd), Troll 2 starred Hardy as the patriarch of an all-American family whose summer vacation is spoiled by a horde of vegetarian goblins (not trolls, per se) who turn their victims into plants before eating them. If that wisp of plot sounds categorically moronic, it’s because it is. But just as bad as the script (penned by Fragasso and his wife, Rosella Drudi) was the acting. And the direction. And the special effects and costumes. And, well, pretty much everything.
But as is so often the case, word of Troll 2‘s magnificent badness spread through underground communities of VHS packrats and horror movie fans, and then word of this basement resurgence got back to Stephenson. Realizing the potential of the story, he set about documenting Troll 2’s bizarre resurgence, while helping to bring the film back to theatres to reach the improbable audience eager to see it.
The result is Best Worst Movie, which apart from gleefully profiling the eminently likeable George Hardy, is the finest portrait of bad movie fan culture available.
The film looks at how bad movies are recovered by fan communities, and how their legacy of crappiness differently weighs on the people involved. Appropriately, there’s some footage of Troll 2 screenings and parties here in Toronto which, with its monthly screenings of The Room, Birdemic, and other perfectly terrible films, has become a capital of bad movie fandom. Best Worst Movie has been receiving plenty of accolades at film festivals across the world (including Hot Docs, where it made its Canadian premiere in 2009), the film is now set to open theatrically across Canada on October 7.
Though its release is far more substantial, it’s not likely that Best Worst Movie will dwarf the curious success of Troll 2 itself anytime soon. But it is a nice complement and, almost any way you slice it, it has more honest claim to being called a good (and even great) film.
We sat down with Stephenson and Hardy on the eve of Best Worst Movie’s Canadian theatrical release to talk about the documentary, the legacy of Troll 2, and what makes a movie so bad it’s good.
Torontoist: What was your experience like making Troll 2? Did you ever have any sneaking suspicions during the production that it wasn’t going to be the masterpiece you signed up for?
Michael Stephenson: I was ten years old and I had just signed up with an agency in Salt Lake City and had done a few commercials and some theatre. The agent called my parents and said, “There’s this really great horror film coming into town and we think Michael would be great for the lead.” This was a big deal for me. It was as you’d imagine a movie audition: lots of people lining up with headshots and resumes. I was ushered into this room—it was this smoke-filled room with a chattering Italian in it. I remember, as a ten-year-old kid, my eyes burning and being totally out of my element.
And the next thing I know, Claudio [Fragasso] emerged through the smoke and knelt down next to me and said [in an Italian accent], “Okay, we improvise. Pretend scary spider on your back. Pretend scary house.” And I screamed.
Two days later, I got the call from my agent that I got the lead role as Joshua Waits in Troll 2. My dad gets the script and I remember with each turn of the page, his face getting more puzzled and more concerned. I insisted that I do it. I wanted to be the lead in a horror movie. In my mind, I thought we were making the next Gremlins or the next Labyrinth. In spite of the ways it fails, there were lights and there were sets and it was made very much like a movie.
Was it a similar experience for you, George? In the documentary you talk about how you’d always wanted to be an actor. Did you just kind of get too swept up in the opportunity and the experience to realize what was happening?
George Hardy: Back then, in 1989, I was practising dentistry in Salt Lake. I was about to get married and move back to Alabama, but one of my patients came in and suggested I audition, and I did. And I got the lead. It was just an adventure for me, to see what it would be like to be in a film. I was a college cheerleader and did a little acting in high school. But I was a ham. I remember getting in front of my friends and doing stupid stuff. Me and my friends would do old Carol Burnett skits and then we’d sing Temptations songs, a bunch of us guys. I knew the ham part of me would love it. My dad always said to me that I should be my own boss. So there was a sense of security I had, and I really love what I do. But there was this other side of me that loves to act.
In fact just last weekend I shot something in Los Angeles. It was the first time I’d acted in twenty-one years. I did a little piece with the lead actress from The Room.
GH: Yeah, it was Juliette and myself and Alan Bagh, who was the lead actor in Birdemic. The three of us shot a little cameo scene for a new movie coming out for a film called Ghost Shark 2: Urban Jaws. But I had a blast! I really loved it. I was really scared about memorizing lines again. And now after doing what I did last week I go in and watch…I watch that coach from Glee. Not the coach but the one that’s in the jumpsuit all the time. What’s her name?
You mean Jane Lynch?
GH: Jane Lynch, yeah. She’s phenomenal. She’s got it down. She knows how to memorize lines. I’m not a very good reader. I’m visual, more than a reader. So for me to sit down and have to memorize lines…
MS: You did a great job.
GH: Yeah, I did do a pretty good job. I ad-libbed a little bit.
Actor/dentist George Hardy tells Michael Stephenson (off-screen) that he won’t allow him to “piss on hospitality” in a famous scene from Troll 2.
It’s interesting that you bring up The Room and Birdemic, because you read a lot of interviews with—never with the actors—but with the directors of these other “so bad they’re good” films and they always seem totally oblivious. They’re happy people are watching their films, but they remain totally unaware of their cruddy charms.
And it’s interesting because you guys are obviously actors from Troll 2 and you’re trying to recuperate it yourselves. What motivated you to do this? When did you begin to realize that people were watching Troll 2 in a certain way, and that you could get back on board with it, and didn’t have to be embarrassed by it?
MS: It goes back to even before we started the documentary, back around 2006. I had just moved to Los Angeles, and prior to that I had done advertising direction, like commercials and that sort of stuff. And I moved back to L.A. with the intent of pursuing filmmaking. The last thing in my mind was Troll 2. By then I had totally distanced myself from it. But then, out of nowhere…it’s interesting because we’ve seen this resurgence grow from basements to when MGM released Troll 2 on Blu-Ray this week.
Which is kind of absurd.
MS: It’s crazy! Citizen Kane is not on Blu-Ray! Star Wars is not on Blu-Ray! So out of nowhere, I got a message on MySpace of all places, from a guy asking if I was Joshua Waits from Troll 2. And I kind of laughed, thinking that this movie would never go away. But then an odd thing happened: another message came. And then two more. And then three more. And these were kids in different parts of the world who didn’t know about each other. And they were all saying things like “I watch Troll 2 with my friends and we get together and we have these parties!” And they all thought they were the only ones.
I started corresponding with them, and was fascinated. It was all happening on its own through word of mouth. This movie refused to go away! It should have died, but it had this will to live. In fact, one of the early fans was from St. Catharines, near here. I was blown away. There was all this heart going into this film that was awful, and that I was embarrassed by. I was so enamored by the fact that this was happening without force, without marketing. This movie was finding an audience all on its own.
Then one morning I woke up and thought, “Well I’m the child star from the worst movie ever made. There’s a great story here.” So I put aside the narrative film I was working on, and started thinking about this documentary. It had the makings of a real-life Christopher Guest movie.
“One morning I woke up and thought, ‘Well I’m the child star from the worst movie ever made. There’s a great story here.'”
Had the two of you been in contact since making Troll 2? Or did you first reconnect making the documentary
MS: No, a fan put us in touch. A fan who was working on a college essay on Troll 2 and its merits or something.
Well that’s almost the ultimate honour: to be the subject of some undergrad’s thesis project.
MS: [Laughs] Yeah! Well it was this guy who put us in touch. And we went and filmed this first big screening in New York. And at that point I didn’t know that George would be the anchor. I knew I wanted it to be character-driven, but I didn’t know I wanted it to be him. But when we got to the theatre, there was this huge line, and as we walked down the line everyone was cheering and shouting George’s name. And his face just lit up!
Now, did this reaction ever fade? I mean in the film, George, you especially seem very enthusiastic about this attention. But you can probably only repeat the “piss on hospitality” line so many times before it gets old. Does this consistent fan enthusiasm continue to fuel you?
GH: Well, I mean, it’s fun. I really love doing it. Instead of running from the film, we’ve thrown ourselves right in: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em type thing. You know? Except there wasn’t really anything to beat. But we just ran from it for all those years. Honestly, my VHS copy [of Troll 2] had fallen behind the TV and I didn’t even want to show it to friends or family anymore. But when we went to that first screening, it was amazing how people just loved our characters from Troll 2. And I figured, why not go out and have fun with everybody?
We filmed the documentary in about twenty-eight cities in eight countries. And a lot of that was meeting fans in different cities. And then we did the film festival run and now we’re doing press for the theatrical run. It has taken a lot out of me. My daughter came up to me the other day and said, “Daddy, you’re just gone too much.” And I am. I really am. I’m sad for that because we’ve missed our friends and family. I didn’t know how immersed I’d be. I’ve enjoyed it, but it’s been trying.
It must be somewhat comforting to know that you made the right life decision in being a dentist, though. Because if you were a full-time actor, this would be your life, working press junkets like this all the time.
GH: Well exactly. That’s true. I was trying to put myself in comparison with people who are travelling salesmen and away from their families all the time. But I couldn’t do that. I have to be available for people in my profession. I’ve been in-and-out, in-and-out, and there have been some stresses there, with the girls in the office and whatnot. I’ve never really said this in an interview, but I think I need to bring someone in to help me, or else I got to be there with my practice. I can’t just half-assed do it.
Well you’re saying how you did this expansive tour, and you came to the Bloor Cinema here in Toronto during that. How did you find that Toronto Troll 2 audiences ranked against Austin and L.A. and all these other cities you visited?
MS: It was amazing. I was blown away by how many people show up. Toronto has a very awesome vibe. I would put our best audiences as Austin, Toronto, New York. They’re kind of in the same camp in terms of audience love for movies. Austin and Toronto both. New York was fantastic, amazing crowds. But in Toronto there’s a real love for movies, even moreso than in Los Angeles. There was something about Austin and Toronto where there’s a genuine love that’s similar.
Dentist/actor George Hardy making a patient smile in a scene from Best Worst Movie.
And speaking of rankings, and kind of back to other movies that hold up as “best worst movies,” looking back, how do you feel that Troll 2 holds up? Because in a lot of ways it’s easy to consider it an actual masterpiece when compared to something as awful as Birdemic.
MS: Well, here’s the thing. This will tell you how much this Best Worst Movie trip has messed with my head. I can’t tell you now that Troll 2 is a bad film. I think it fails principally. Writing, directing, acting: all that stuff fails abysmally. But it has not failed to entertain. And more importantly, it has not failed to leave a positive impression on its audiences. When so many movies are utterly forgettable, films like Birdemic or The Room are celebrated because they’re awful, but also celebrate the communal nature of filmgoing. How many films do you round up twenty friends and go see and have a night you talk about for weeks after?
And I have a lot of respect for Claudio. Because how many “no”s did he get? How many people told him, “You can’t even speak English. You’re working with actors that can’t act on a movie about vegetarian goblins”? But he got it made. And twenty years later, it’s having this magical effect. How many of us would have been dissuaded and not made a film like this and just settled for mediocrity?
And besides even the communal aspect you mention, these Troll 2 and The Room screenings at rep houses, at least here in Toronto, are consistently packed to the gills. And the revenue they bring in is oftentimes what allows these cinemas to stay afloat and show other, older movies.
MS: Right, and especially these arthouse theatres that are in danger of being parking lots. There was a New York Times article a few months ago, where they did a survey of people’s favourite films of, I don’t know, the past five years or so. And it was interesting because it wasn’t these critically acclaimed or talked-about films, but ones that left an impression of the time the viewer spent in the theatre. Whether it’s good or bad is kind of irrelevant. If four hundred people are in a theatre laughing their heads off and having a great time, how was that such a bad thing?
Stills from Troll 2 and Best Worst Movie courtesy Andrea Grau, Torchwood PR.
Best Worst Movie opens in Toronto on Thursday, October 7. Check CinemaClock Toronto for showtimes. Troll 2 was released on Blu-Ray courtesy of the good people at MGM on Tuesday. We live in strange times, folks.