Friday, 18 January 2013

Best Worst Movie

Director: Michael Paul Stephenson
Writer: Michael Paul Stephenson
Producers: Michael Paul Stephenson, Mary Francis Groom, Jim McKeon, Lindsay Rowles
Cast: Michael Paul Stephenson, George Hardy, Claudio Fragasso - and me!
Country: USA
Year of release: 2009
Reviewed from: screener

Quite a few years ago, when I was thinking about interesting things to write a book about, I had an idea. What about doing a Making Of book about some utterly, utterly obscure little film that no-one had ever heard of? Take some unknown piece of crap (the crappier the better) and track down all the nobodies who made it. Find out the real story behind a film which was very clearly absolutely never, ever going to be a big commercial success but got made anyway. Find out what these people were thinking. Treat a piece of cinematic detritus with the same degree of attention that is normally reserved for Casablanca or The Wizard of Oz.

Of course, I never wrote this. But if I had done, the film I was thinking of using was Troll 2.

Ah, Troll 2. Made by Italians in Utah with a semi-professional cast. Not a sequel to Troll and there are no trolls in it. When I reviewed Troll 2 back in 2004, it was just a staggeringly bad film. It did not yet have (or at least, I was not yet aware of) its acquired status as the putative worst film of all time.

Michael Paul Stephenson, who played the annoying, eminently slappable, gee-whillikers kid in the film, is now an adult and has capitalised on the film’s infamy and the resurgence of interest that goes with it. He set up the website, organised screenings and events and has now produced a feature-length documentary which does, on screen, roughly what I was considering doing in a book. Only Stephenson does it much, much better than I could have done because he was there and he knows these people.

Interestingly however, Best Worst Movie isn’t a film about Michael Paul Stephenson, although he features in some sequences and provides simple narration where necessary. No, the star of this film is George Hardy - the dentist who played his father.

Hardy is an enormously likeable fellow. A down-home, honest-injun, no-nonsense, ever-smiling, good neighbour who is completely incapable of bearing anyone ill will and who genuinely enjoys absolutely everything he has ever done, apparently. He’s like Will Rogers with a drill and a spit-sink. It would be impossible for anyone to be a nicer human being than George Hardy without crossing the line that separates ‘friendly’ from ‘creepy’. In fact, the first five minutes of the film is all about George and how much everyone loves him. His neighbours love him, his patients love him, the mayor and corporation of the small town in Alabama where he now lives and practices love him, his parents love him (of course) and even his ex-wife thinks he’s a wonderful guy.

Someone unsure what they were watching would be forgiven for thinking that this is a documentary about a small town dentist and, truth be told, this opening sequence does go on too long. We get the point. George is a swell fellow. Then the question comes up of his acting. There is not actually the sound of a needle being scratchily removed from a record here, but you feel that there ought to be. Because suddenly all these friends and neighbours who were so effusive in their praise start being more circumspect and tactful.

And finally we come to the reason for the documentary’s existence. Back in 1989, George Hardy starred in a film called Troll 2 which went straight to video, plays occasionally on cable, is now available on DVD and at one point in the early 2000s actually reached the impressive position of being ranked number one in the IMDB’s bottom hundred films by user rating. According to one of the principal barometers of public opinion on matters cinematic, this was The Worst Film Ever Made. Which is something.

Of course, it’s not the worst film ever made and the IMDB bottom hundred is subject very much to the whims of public taste, reaction against hype and current notoriety. Which is why in the week that Best Worst Movie premiered at the SXSW Festival in Texas, the newly released Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience was at number one in the bottom hundred with Troll 2 at number 83, behind such titles as Manos: The Hands of Fate, Outlaw of Gor, Fat Slags, Boggy Creek 2, Ghoulies IV, Fire Maidens from Outer Space and The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies.

However, I think it is significant that Troll 2 has received more than 8,500 votes and only nine films in the current list have more than that with many receiving only 700 or 800 votes. A few years from now it is highly likely that the Jonas Brothers 3D concert film will be entirely forgotten along with the sanctimonious teen incubi who star in it. But Troll 2 has a solid place in this online hall of shame where it is likely to remain for many years to come.

Make no mistake, the hype that has built up around Troll 2 is not some cynical marketing exercise; this is a genuine, self-generated phenomenon. People saw the film, just like people see other bad old films, but jaws dropped and people felt the need to show their friends, to organise parties - and gradually the infamy grew. Stephenson has ridden the wave but he certainly didn’t start it. In that respect, Troll 2 is a little like Harry Potter because, difficult though it may be to believe now, when the first couple of Potter books were published there was virtually no publicity, certainly no hype, and the enormous groundswell of popularity came from children, not marketing people.

There are two other connections between Troll 2 and Harry Potter. One is that in the first (entirely unconnected) Troll film, the John Carl Buechler one which does actually have a troll in it, the lead character is called Harry Potter. And the other connection is that in this new documentary film, Troll 2 director Claudio Fragasso talks about his film’s success being reflected in the popularity of Harry Potter (he actually says ‘publicity’ in his fractured English but the subtitle says ‘popularity’ and it’s clear that that is what he meant).

Like any feature film, Best Worst Movie has three acts. The first part sees George - and occasionally Michael and other cast members - being feted by adoring fans at sold-out screenings of the film in independent cinemas across America. People scream, people whoop, people ask for autographs, people scream and whoop some more as Hardy says his signature line: “You can’t piss on hospitality - I won’t allow it!” Hardy is loving every minute of it without getting big-headed or conceited. The whole thing is enormous - and frankly unlikely - fun.

After quite a lot of this, including comments from festival organisers, critics - even me! - and fans, we take a look at how the film actually came to be made. Claudio Fragasso comes to America, accompanied by his wife Rossella Drudi who wrote the screenplay (both became ‘Drake Floyd’ in the English credits). Fragasso and Drudi meet up with Stephenson and Hardy and we are treated to a trip to original locations, a very few contemporary photographs and memories of various cast members, some of which are actually... well, uncomfortable.

Let’s be honest, without pointing fingers: some people in this film give the impression of having mental health problems (and I don’t mean the girl who screams at the camera: “I bought the original VHS because I! Am! A goblin!”). They’re nice folk, they’re harmless folk and the film is neither mocking nor voyeuristic but it’s still unsettling to see these people up on screen, blithely unaware of what must be going through the minds of an audience. This is sensitively handled and the film does not dwell on these people’s problems unnecessarily but still... it’s creepy. And it will make people laugh for the wrong reasons.

On the other hand, here comes Claudio Fragasso, passing down a line outside a cinema asking people what they think of his film and revelling in the attention. In interview segments, speaking in a mixture of Italian and rough English, he remains convinced that his film is a masterpiece and that everyone loves it, as evidenced by the queues outside the screenings. Is he naive? Is he deluding himself? Is he playing along with some sort of post-modern irony? Somehow, I don’t think it’s the last of those three.

Visiting old locations, the actors recreate scenes under the direction of Fragasso and now the tension starts to show. Things begin to look just that little less fun. When four of the actors jet off to the UK for signings and screenings, George Hardy observes that he is glad Fragasso is not accompanying them. He doesn’t actually say anything unpleasant about the director but if even the World’s Nicest Dentist is wearying of someone, that’s serious.

It is in Birmingham - UK, not Alabama - that things start to fall apart. Gorezone magazine flew Hardy, Stephenson, Darren Ewing and Jason Steadman over to the giant Memorabilia collectors’ fair at the NEC - and it was a disaster. Footage of a discussion panel shows about eight or nine bored looking people scattered around a seating area that could take 150. If this was Spinal Tap, we would have reached the scene at the airbase dance. Wrong place, wrong time. What the hell are we doing here?

At their booth in the NEC, the good-natured Yanks shrug and stare bemusedly as virtually no-one pays them any attention. No-one has heard of Troll 2, no-one wants their autographs, no-one wants to buy a T-shirt. Not when there are real stars like the guy who played Third Hobbit from the Left in Return of the King or Harry Potter’s second assistant stunt double’s understudy.

It’s a cruel lesson. And God bless Bryn Hammond for flying the guys over but I fear he didn’t really think this through. At these massive aircraft hangar events, saddo fanboys queue up for autographs from people who had small parts in big movies, not big parts in small movies. Celebrity in this mindset is governed entirely by association. The quality of an artist’s work or their personal status as an erudite and interesting human being means nothing compared with the touch-the-hem-of-your-robe adulation for anyone who has ever been told where to stand by Peter Jackson or George Lucas.

It was in Birmingham that I met up with George, Michael, Darren and Jason. We filmed a great interview, then shared a Chinese meal and then there was a screening of Troll 2 at the Electric Cinema, its first (and probably last) theatrical presentation in this country. As I recall, the cinema was about a third full; there certainly weren’t lines round the block or people screaming and whooping. But then British people don’t scream and whoop, do they? Emily Booth did her best to interview the cast on stage beforehand but I’m not sure even she knew who they were and the whole affair was somewhat perfunctory. I found myself sitting next to Leslie Simpson (from Doomsday and I Love You) who seemed bored by the film and said he had seen far worse and he couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. At the end, everyone just melted away into the Brummie night.

No whooping, no screaming. There was supposed to be a screening in London too but I think that was cancelled.

But to be fair, it wasn’t just national reticence and cultural differences that were responsible for the tumbleweeds blowing through the NEC and the Electric Cinema that weekend. When next we catch up with the Troll 2 folks they are at a big American horror convention. And once again, they can’t get arrested.

Strange-looking goths, who sit in that middle ground where prosthetic effects meet body jewellery and you can’t always tell the difference, prowl another aircraft hangar, completely ignoring the Alabama dentist and his friends. No-one wants to know. Hardy, being a simple, honest, Will Rogers type is scared and even repelled by what he sees around him which is slightly unfair as most people who look genuinely scary are usually sweet (if slightly bonkers) and it’s always the mainstream, smart casual crowd who will kick your head in when they pile out of a nightclub at three in the morning. On the other hand, some of the posters for Cannibal Holocaust etc that Hardy sees for the first time are genuinely unpleasant.

He chats with minor starlets who were in Nightmare on Elm Street sequels and for a moment George Hardy glimpses the bleak pathos of those around him. These are jobbing actors who never made the big time but had one memorable role in one memorable film (or sometimes, a forgettable sequel to a memorable film) and now a large part of their lives - because it is a large part of their income - involves sitting behind tables in halls. Not acting. Well, not acting on stage or soundstage but acting of a different kind. Acting as if they care, as if it matters. They sit there, weekend after weekend, surrounded by Hellraiser statuettes and Ruggero Deodato bootlegs, desperately hoping to catch the eye of one of the fanboys or fangirls who shuffle sadly around the room, plastic carrier bags clutched in their hands.

I have seen this, time and time again. People’s dignity is cast aside as they prostitute their autographs and photographic opportunities, smiling at strangers to advertise that they are willing to be their friend for a few minutes in a joyless financial transaction that cruelly mocks the reality of genuine human contact. Convention dealers’ rooms are like Dutch red light districts without the legalised dope or the cheese shops.

Could this be what I am becoming, wonders Hardy, before he and his colleagues pack up early and leave. Has the Troll 2 celebration reached rock bottom? Are they metaphorically playing support to a puppet show?

But it is all right... because George Hardy is not like these other victims, chained to their tables. He has a life. He’s not an actor - though he always wanted to be one. He’s a dentist. He lives in a small town in America where everybody knows everyone else and he can recognise anyone within a five mile radius by their pre-molars. Perhaps he can use his experience to help the town.

But can isn’t necessarily the same as should.

One of the oddities of America is that tiny little places which in Britain would be considered a large village refer to themselves as cities. On this side of the Atlantic you need the best part of 200,000 inhabitants, a full-scale university and preferably an Anglican cathedral before anyone will take your claim to city-dom seriously. But in the States all you apparently need is two houses and a road inbetween them.

Hardy lives and works in a place which proudly - and tautologically - proclaims itself, on the council office building, to be the City of Alexander City. That is so glorious, so wonderfully devoid of irony (while maintaining that Spinal Tap vibe with its echoes of ‘Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight’) that I actually feel slightly bad for laughing at it.

So the Mayor (who knows George) and the Head of the High School (who knows George) and George come up with a plan to stage a one-off screening of Troll 2 in Alexander City, to raise funds for the High School. After all, George Hardy is the closest thing that they have to a celebrity among their 15,000 inhabitants. Take a look at the town’s list of famous sons in its Wikipedia entry and you find two pro football players and the former CEO of an international management consultancy firm. (Where is George Hardy on that Wikipedia page? Actually, to be fair, Alexander City also apparently has a company developing airship technology which makes the whole place considerably cooler and more respectable in my book.)

George throws himself into this project as he throws himself into everything else, actually distributing photocopied fliers door-to-door. Everyone loves George. Everyone wants to support the school and raise funds for a new whatever-it-is. Surely most of them will come.

Some do. But once again there is no whooping or screaming. And these are people who do whoop and scream, as we can see in footage of Hardy roller-blading in a fat-suit in the annual Christmas parade (don’t ask, just don’t ask). But as the audience leave, they seem quiet and withdrawn. This is the wrong place, wrong time, wrong people. You can see in their shell-shocked faces that they wish they had just given some money straight to the school.

You have to feel sorry for the inhabitants of Alexander City. There is no way they could appreciate or understand Troll 2. They have no cultural references. These are people who rarely watch films, let alone horror films. These are folks who have never seen a low-budget movie, whose entire knowledge of Italian film directors is maybe that Fellini fella. We laugh at and enjoy Troll 2 because we have seen other low-budget B-movies. We have seen other films on that IMDB bottom hundred. We can see where Troll 2 fits into the panopticon of independent cinema and we can see quite how transgressive and subversive it is. We know that it is ‘out there’ because we have some idea where ‘there’ is.

You and I have walked along the boundaries that this film crosses.

But not so Joe Q Average of Alexander City and his wife. These poor souls, who sit in deathly silence throughout the screening, are looking for meaning. Looking for sense. Looking for something which connects this with the world of Cary Grant and Johnny Depp and they are not finding it.

You get the impression that, much like Principal Skinner’s real identity as Armin Tamzarian, this will never be spoken of again and everything will continue as before.

Hardy and Stephenson are starting to realise that the appeal of Troll 2 does not travel, that it cannot be imposed on people. One definition of a cult film is that not many people like it but those who do absolutely love it. That’s Troll 2 in a nutshell. People with a broader interest in horror culture or cult cinema won’t look at the film in the same way as its fans, the ones who do buy the T-shirts and queue up outside the cinemas. And the greater morass of ordinary people - the ‘mundanes’, Joe Q Average and his wife - could not possibly ever have any interest in this film whatsoever, even if it has their local dentist in it.

Hold that thought.

The Troll 2 phenomenon has developed organically and it must grow organically, as people are recommended the film by their friends. People aren’t going to become part of Troll 2 fandom because they met the cast in an aircraft hangar.

Finally comes the biggest Troll 2 event of all: a mini-festival with all the cast in attendance, every last person that Michael and George have been able to track down, including some of the short folk who were in the goblin costumes. Well, almost all. We have already seen them visiting Margo Prey, who played the mother and still lives in the same house in the same town in Utah as she did 20 years ago. Despite a stern notice warning that no-one must approach the house without invitation, the duo bite the bullet and knock - and Margo welcomes them. They then spend an afternoon which even George describes as “bizarre”, chatting and re-enacting scenes under the bemused eye of Prey’s wheelchair-bound mother. Later, George and Michael try to persuade Prey to join the cast reunion but she politely rebuffs them.

If this documentary has one major failing it’s that we meet a great many of the cast but very few of the crew. A sequence filmed in Italy includes composer Carlo Cordio and we get one brief shot of cinematographer Giancarlo Ferrando - but what about the Utah-based props people and sound people and chippies and sparks and effects people? Where are they? What do they think?

The one behind-the-scenes presence we do encounter and get to know in depth, of course, is dear old Claudio. By now, he is starting to realise that people are not cheering his film because they love it but because they hate it. Actually, they love it and hate it at the same time. But Fragasso is an unironic Italian adrift in the least ironic nation on Earth. He is fed up with people saying the film is bad. If it is bad, that is because of the bad actors.

And so the film draws to a close with the extraordinary sight of a film director abusively heckling his own cast at a festival to celebrate his film. It’s just one more slice of weirdness in the world of Troll 2.

And George Hardy? He goes back to the City of Alexander City and carries on drilling and smiling. He has been on an awfully big adventure, but he has come through it unscathed because of his genuine, sincere, philanthropic bonhomie. Good for you, George.

Is there anything else that I would have liked to see in Best Worst Movie? Certainly there are some omissions. For example, Stephenson never mentions that he made a second film with Fragasso around the same time, La Casa 5. Largely forgotten, how does that compare with Troll 2? And what does John Carl Buechler think about this awful turkey which has attached itself unbidden to one of his best films, even sharing a DVD? I also thought it a shame not to point out that there is one genuine internationally famous movie star listed in the film’s credits.

The folks of Alexander City won’t have heard of Laura Gemser but among cult movie fans, she is a name. She was a film star - an actual, name-above-the-title star - in a whole series of internationally successful soft-porn flicks in the 1970s and 1980s. And on Troll 2 she did costumes. Was she on set, doing wardrobe? Or did she just send over designs from Italy? It intrigues me. Perhaps things like this will be addressed in the DVD commentary.

But to be fair, Best Worst Movie is not a Making Of. It does not try to document the how and why of Troll 2’s production. In that respect it is not the same as the book that I briefly considered writing. Nor does it exactly fulfil the promise of the trailer which made the movie look more investigative than it actually is. This seems more a film for those already familiar with the cult of Troll 2 than an objective view from the outside.

Which brings me back to the notion of people who are not already rabid fans of Troll 2 and the inescapable question: will they appreciate this documentary? It goes without saying that anyone who has ever shown or lent this film to a friend, anyone who has watched it more than once, anyone who has ever taken the trouble to see it on the big screen (except perhaps Leslie Simpson) will want to see this documentary. That’s a given. Nor is there any doubt that your average punter, with no interest in horror or cult movies or independent cinema, will have zero interest in this documentary and will, if shown it, walk away as bemused and confused (and quite probably disappointed) as the people who saw it at Alexander City High.

But what about the greater morass of horror/cult movie fans? If you showed this at a film festival or convention, somewhere which had not already established a local Troll 2 fandom through a sold-out screening, would this pique people’s interest or would you have a repeat of the nine bored people in the NEC? Any film about a film, by its nature, limits its potential audience to those who have seen the first film (except, for obvious reasons, Lost in La Mancha). So a limited potential audience is not necessarily a bad thing or a reflection of poor work. Ultimately, this will play best on a double bill with Troll 2, giving the repeat viewers something extra and any newbies who might have been dragged in by friends a degree of context.

Perhaps some people will see Best Worst Movie first and, through this, be persuaded to watch Troll 2. But equally likely is that some people will watch this film and resolve never to watch Troll 2 unless paid or tortured. You win some, you lose some.

Ultimately, this is a slightly bemused, reasonably objective look at a unique thing, an unavoidably half-hearted attempt to understand it which swiftly realises that no-one will ever understand it, then shrugs and goes along for the ride. Best Worst Movie mirrors its subject in that it is something different, something a bit special, and you will either get it straightaway or never get it.

For an hour and a half, Michael Paul Stephenson and George Hardy and the other cast of Troll 2 invite us into their world, into the weirdness that has followed them for nearly twenty years, and they share with us a little of the strange things that happen on the fringes of their otherwise normal lives. It is very kind of them to invite us and I recommend that you take up their offer.

Because you know what? It’s true. You can’t piss on hospitality.

MJS rating: A-
Review originally posted 11th March 2009

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