Sunday, January 2, 2011

Movie Review: "Best Worst Movie"

A few years back, a friend and I used to make a habit of having a "bad movie night."

Basically, one of us would pick out a movie that was getting panned by critics and audiences. "Glitter," "Left Behind," "Carman: The Champion." We had a blast looking watching those movies and laughing at their awfulness. Our breaking point, I believe, came with "Gigli," when we realized that some movies' badness just wasn't worth it.

Bad movie connoisseurs know that not just any bad movie is a "good" bad movie. Some films are just plain terrible and better left alone (I'm looking at you, "Last Airbender") while others are just so wrong-headed and made with so much misdirected passion that they spawn a cult following, with people gathering just to revel in their awfulness.

So what is it that makes an awful movie become beloved, and what are the fates of those who dared lend their names to the credits of such infamous flicks? That's what Michael Stephenson's documentary seeks to find out in "Best Worst Movie."

I haven't seen "Troll 2," a horror flick from 1986 that has garnered infamy as the worst movie ever made--accruing a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 0%. I should also probably state that I haven't seen the original "Troll," although I quickly learned that this was a quickie sequel made by an Italian director that has no connection to the original film. "Troll 2" is actually not even about trolls at all--it's about vegetarian goblins, who attempt to turn a family into vegetables so that they can eat them. Just hearing that description was enough to make me add it to my Netflix Instant queue for watching later this week.

As films about vegetarian goblins are wont to do, "Troll 2" took a critical drubbing and failed to make a peep at the box office. Most of the amateur actors involved went back to their day jobs and some didn't even see the movie until they had VHS copies shipped to them. But as the film began to circulate on videotape and in rotation on HBO, it gathered a cult following. People began throwing parties and midnight shows, with some calling it the new generation's "Rocky Horror Picture Show."

As these screenings begin to pop up throughout the country, Stephenson gathers the film's cast to assemble and take a look at the phenomenon they've become a part of. It ends up being a funny and surprising look at pop culture and the weird things people latch onto.

Having seen and cherished my share of low budget, horrible horror movies over the years, I've often wondered what becomes of the cast. Every once in awhile, you'll have a movie star who started in drek, like Jennifer Aniston ("Leprechaun") or Kevin Bacon ("Friday the 13th"). But most of the time, these horrid little flicks are just opportunities for local men and women who wanted to try their hand at being in a real movie.

That's what happened with George Hardy, who commands most of the doc's screen time. A Dentist living in Alabama, Hardy is a friendly and talkative chap who is always smiling or chatting someone up. He readily admits that when he saw the film for the first time, he was immediately aware of how bad the film was and promptly went on with his life of dentistry. When he gets word of "Troll 2's" unexpected popularity and attends a midnight screening, he begins to have a blast with interacting with the crowds, signing autographs and regaling audiences with his classic line, "you can't piss on hospitality."

The film largely follows Hardy as he attends screenings and conventions, trying to assemble as much of the cast as possible. Sometimes this results in getting other people eager to share in the experience--such as the actor who played his son and is game to sit around a recreate scenes for the camera. Other times--such as when the two attempt to recruit the woman who played Hardy's wife--the results are so bizarre that it could only happen in a documentary like this...upon their visit they find a reclusive, cat-obsessed woman whose own shut-in mother seems constantly annoyed at her own child. When they ask her to join them at a screening, they get a bizarre rant about how scary and risky it would be. Also, this woman truly believes "Troll 2" turned out to be a meaningful, magical film.

One thing I've always suspected about these low budget fiascoes is that, despite how horrible the film turned out, the cast had a great experience just being in a movie. Hardy is probably the best type of person to center a film like this around--he's pleased as punch to have the lime light shown on him. And while the cast reminisces about a shoot where they constantly had no idea what kind of movie they were making and were further confused by the crew's language barrier, we get the sense that they all enjoyed their one shot at making a movie. It was fun and, for the most part, they have a fun time talking to the movie's unexpected fan club.

Stephenson is a little less successful at capturing why "Troll 2" has become such a beloved bad movie. He has no trouble in finding large groups of people who gather for viewing parties, midnight shows and Question and Answer session. Some of these people appear to genuinely believe that--despite its bad acting, directing and everything else--"Troll 2" is actually a truly enjoyable and even magical film. Others seem to be content just to admit that they love to laugh at ever terrible line of dialogue. I might have liked to see some more film experts polled on what makes a bad movie a cult hit and maybe a digression further into the works of Ed Wood or some sort of analysis about why people love to laugh at these movies. I would venture to say, at first glance, it's a result of our postmodern culture--but I also then have to remember that generations before me loved to laugh at "Plan 9 From Outer Space."

Of course, I could be expecting a little too much scholarly work from a movie that follows the global impact of "Troll 2."

One fan posits that people flock to bad movies that have been made with sincerity and belief in the product, and I would agree that a good bad movie has to truly believe that it is, in fact, good (which is why "Snakes on a Plan" has its merits, but doesn't hang on as a cult classic--it's too aware of its badness.) But surely, I thought, "Troll 2" would have to be excluded from that--it was a sequel to a little seen horror movie, a cash-in by an Italian film crew.

And then Stephenson brings in Claudio Fragasso, the film's director. Claudio, through a translator, recalls that he made "Troll 2" as a movie about family values with an important comment to make. He still believes that it's an emotionally moving film and sees its new found popularity as a vindication from critics who panned it upon release. He gladly visits the midnight screenings and shakes hands with "fans," even believing that he inspired some to go into the film business.

Claudio, of course, has no concept of irony. And he's baffled when people are laughing not only at the film's humorous moments but--even harder--at the moments intended to be serious. At the end of the film he lashes out at the actors who have all taken part in the joke, calling them "dogs." When someone asks him why there are no actual trolls in "Troll 2," Claudio's only response is "you know nothing." Watching him slowly catch on and react to what people really think about the movie is one of the most entertaining--and awkward--moments of the documentary.

But the film also finds a bit of resonance in Hardy's experience reliving "Troll 2." At first, he seems to take every moment to go to screenings and talk about the film. He talks about it with all his patients--not really understanding that some people just don't think bad films are all that funny. He throws a screening his hometown and even begins to think about quitting his dental career to go back into film. But there's a sadness to scenes set at horror and sci fi conventions, where Hardy and his crew are ignored by fanboys who aren't part of the cult and they see how out of place they are in the world of geeks. "Troll 2" fans, I guess, truly do breathe rare air and aren't found everywhere in the country.

The film never truly gains the momentum or heart to be on par with a "King of Kong," probably the champion of quirky documentaries. But "Best Worst Movie" is enjoyable in its own rights, as a look at the legacy even the worst movie can have and for watching people truly get some enjoyment out of a movie that they thought was long forgotten.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.