Home > Culture, Film, Reviews > Best Worst Movie: Troll 2 and the Culture of Irony

Best Worst Movie: Troll 2 and the Culture of Irony

I had never previously heard of the cult camp-horror classic Troll 2 before stumbling across Best Worst Movie, an independent documentary film about the strange underground phenomenon around the gloriously inept 1990 B-movie. In many ways no different than any other awful, misguided cinematic attempt that might have received the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 treatment in the 1990s, Troll 2 and the reception to it depicted in Best Worst Movie actually turns out to be an instructive lesson in the nature and the limitations of the pervasive North American culture of irony.

If, like me, you have lived your life to this point blissfully unaware of the existence of Troll 2, allow me to indoctrinate you in its bizarre appeal. Directed by veteran Italian exploitation filmmaker Claudio Fragasso and conceived by his wife Rossella Drudi as a middle finger to her smug vegetarian friends, the film was originally titled (and is really about) Goblins. It tells the simple tale of a vacationing family that visits a town called Nilbog (the realization that the name is ‘goblin’ backwards is a hilarious plot point), the realm of malevolent vegetarian goblins who seek to turn humans into plants in order to consume them.

Shot in a small town in Utah on a budget of a few hundred thousand dollars and later re-titled by a distribution company desperate to make some money off of the disastrous project by associating it with a completely unrelated film from a few years earlier, Troll 2 is as weirdly fascinating behind the scenes as it is on its inadvertently comic filmic level. Fragasso and his Italian crew spoke little to no English, making it difficult to communicate their intentions with the cast of American amateur actors, most of whom believed they were going to be extras in the film at first, and one of whom was on leave from a mental asylum at the time. Thanks to a combination of the unseasoned performers, the poor production values (the goblins wear burlap sacks and obvious latex masks and glove-fingers), and the near-pidgin-English dialogue which Fragasso allegedly refused to allow the cast to turn into something less spectacularly awkward, Troll 2 emerged as a fantastically funny bad movie.

What happened next to Troll 2 is documented in the opening half of Best Worst Movie, directed by Michael Stephenson, who played the 10-year-old protagonist in the film. Discovered on HBO and in the depths of video stores by film nerds, Troll 2 gradually spread via word-of-mouth as an ironically-adored camp classic, its accidental comedy devoured by the ravenous young goblins of movie geekdom like so many botanized humans. By the turn of the 21st century, the film was being screened to enthusiastically-packed indie theatres across the United States, often with members of the only slightly embarrassed cast on hand to introduce it.

Dominated and really partly hosted by George Hardy, a square-jawed, outgoing Alabama dentist who played the family’s patriarch in the film, this section of Best Worst Movie is not all that insightful about the Troll 2 phenomenon, but it does provide plenty of evidence for its vitality. It’s a strong testament to a particular strain of irony prevalent in American culture, namely the celebrative re-appropriation of failed cultural products by a self-aware subculture. While the profit-motivated American cultural machine ejected Troll 2 as wasteful detritus incapable of fulfilling its purpose even as a trashy money-making diversion, self-styled counter-cultural anthropologists excavated it from the refuse pit and held it up sarcastically as a work of involuntary brilliance whose rampant badness undermines the constructive self-image of the hegemonic capitalist order. Their embrace of the film is an inherently satirical act, and sharing it with others in special screenings and themed parties establishes a circle of solidarity against the supremacy of the commercial cinema in their cultural reality.

But Stephenson’s documentary becomes especially interesting when it complicates the comforting irony of Troll 2’s underground fandom by confronting it with direct, unreflective sincerity. Several figures are encountered who do not comprehend the film as a shared joke. Most prominently, this perspective is represented by the Italian director Fragasso, who considers his film to be a misunderstood work of social commentary and subversive genius. He vehemently contradicts the cast’s mocking reminiscences of his clueless artistic tyranny, occasionally during screenings and Q&As for the film predicated entirely on its redeeming camp value. He expresses his bewilderment with the audience at one such showing, unable to fathom why they were laughing at the moments that he felt they shouldn’t laugh at.

This noticeable lack of irony is echoed when Hardy organizes a screening in his conservative Alabama hometown, attended by many of his dental patients who he recounts as watching it intently and genuinely, with none of the knowing mockery of the audiences on his screening tour. The actress who plays his wife in Troll 2, now a spacey recluse who cannot be persuaded to join even the most complete cast reunion events, also fails to meet the requisite level of ironic engagement, speaking with loopy earnestness about the movie as a realistic, character-driven drama that she was proud to participate in. After immersing itself with joyful abandon in the passionate irony of the movie’s cultish fandom, Best Worst Movie becomes ever more fraught with uncertainty about the value of that irony as it delves deeper into the peripheral arcana of the Troll 2 subculture.

But a less noticeable scene in Best Worst Movie may embody the temperament of the culture of irony around the Troll 2 subculture most succinctly, while identifying it as a geographic phenomenon. Stephenson, George Hardy, and another cast member travel to a fan expo in Birmingham, England to promote the badfilm profile of the movie, and are disappointed in the lack of knowledge or even interest in Troll 2 overseas.

One can certainly put this lack of prominence down to regional commercial factors. Troll 2’s unpromoted spread through pay cable and video shop obscurity would understandably not extend much beyond American borders. Exporting cultural products is a matter of more considerable capital, undertaken with corporate intention and not disseminated through the more underground methods that benefitted a film that its production backers would probably rather forget about.

But Troll 2’s lack of appeal in Britain could also speak to an essential difference in the nature of the culture of irony there as opposed to in America. Irony, sarcasm, and sardonic wit have a much more open and even official role in the British discourse than in the American one. The mainstream Brit media, in particular, leans hard on irony, disdaining and rolling its collective eyes at the comparative gullible sincerity of its counterparts in the former colonies. A strong sense of irony and skepticism about the nature of power seems indeed to be an inheritance in the contemporary British public character. It is perhaps a psychological necessity for a nation that has lost a worldwide empire, while an America clinging stubbornly to its fracturing cultural empire can admit less destabilizing cynicism of that sort in its wider discourse.

Therefore, a product like Troll 2, ironically feted for its underlying revelations of aesthetic ineptitude in the midst of the usually slick and masterful American entertainment industry, has less of a role to play in the national discourse of a country like Britain than it does in the American context, where it is an outlet for a sense of irony that is largely absent in the official discourse. But as the documentary about it shows, the culture of irony is not entirely pervasive. Its terms can shift, its membranes are permeable. Even a film as epically and as ironically bad as Troll 2 can be taken seriously, from certain perspectives, and it is to Best Worst Movie’s credit that it allows this truth to trickle out in the end.

Categories: Culture, Film, Reviews
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