Troll 2: As camp as it gets
When a group of fledgling Utah actors shot a cheap horror flick in 1989 in the mountains northeast of Salt Lake City, they never imagined that 18 years later they'd be celebrated by fans worldwide for their roles in what may be the worst movie ever made.
The movie is "Troll 2," and it's spectacularly awful - the rare kind of entertainment that's so hilariously inept on every level that it's strangely captivating. Its story makes no sense, its acting is wooden, its special effects look like something from a sixth-grade play, and its dialogue contains such zingers as, "They're all eating my mom!"
Yet last month in Austin, Texas, hundreds of "Troll 2" fans lined around the block for a midnight show of a little-known movie that's been available on video for a decade and a half. The Austin event, attended by several actors from the film, followed sold-out "Troll 2" screenings last year in Provo and New York City. And the "Troll 2" cult seems to be growing: Fans are dedicating MySpace pages to the movie, at least five more screenings are planned and a documentary is in the works.
"We always get asked at these things, 'Did you know the movie was going to be that bad?' And I say, 'Yes,' " says actor Darren Ewing, of Ogden, who had a supporting role as a geeky teen who gets turned into a tree by a sorceress. "It's so epically bad. People ask us if we were high when it was made."
The bizarre saga of "Troll 2" begins with its title. First, it has nothing to do with "Troll," a 1986 comedy-horror movie featuring Sonny Bono and a pre-"Seinfeld" Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Second, "Troll 2" contains no trolls.
Originally titled "Goblin," the movie is about a suburban American family of four who go on vacation to the mountain hamlet of Nilbog. Dad, Mom and teenage daughter Holly don't notice that the Nilbog townspeople seem a little strange, but 10-year-old Joshua, warned by the ghost of his late Grandpa Seth, is suspicious, especially after he realizes that Nilbog is - horrors! - "Goblin" spelled backward.
Soon the family - plus four of Holly's guy pals, who tag along because they think Nilbog will be a hotbed of teenage girls - are being stalked by vegetarian goblins who try to turn them into tasty edible plants.
The movie was helmed by Claudio Fragasso, an Italian director with a résumé of B-movies and low-budget European knockoffs such as "Terminator II," which predated the Arnold Schwarzenegger sequel by a year. Fragasso arrived in Utah in the summer of 1989 with a crew of chain-smoking Italians and a script translated from Italian into awkward English. He cast the film with Utah actors, some with no previous experience.
The monthlong shoot, around Morgan, Portersville and Heber City, was frugal. Actors had no trailers, and the food on the set was usually pizza or leftovers. The goblins were played by little people wearing potato sacks and cheap latex masks. Fragasso offered little direction and worked fast, often moving on after one or two takes. Actors believe he didn't worry about line readings because he planned to dub the movie for European audiences.
"We had no clue what was going on," says George Hardy, a former Salt Lake City dentist who earned $1,500 for his role as the clueless dad. "I walked off the set thinking, 'I'll never see these people again.' It was an embarrassment to most of us."
The Italian crew ran out of time and departed before the entire script was shot, leaving several story lines unresolved and the actors to wonder if the movie would ever see the light of day. The answer came a couple of years later, when, after a limited European release, it unceremoniously arrived in video stores as "Troll 2."
"My sister told me it was out. She said, 'Brace yourself. It's bad. It's really bad,' " says Hardy, who now has a dental practice in Alexander City, Ala. "I couldn't watch it all the way through."
Michael Stephenson, who played Joshua, had a similar reaction. His parents gave him a copy of the video for Christmas. The Kaysville family popped it in their VCR, and Stephenson felt "totally embarrassed." People teased him in school, and he tried to forget the movie existed.
But then a funny thing happened. "Troll 2" started showing up on late-night cable TV. In 2003, MGM released it as a double-feature DVD with the original "Troll," bringing it to new audiences. Bloggers raved about the movie's wretchedness, and in 2006 the Internet Movie Database ranked it the No. 1 worst film of all time. After years of running from it, some cast members began to embrace the movie.
"I woke up one day and said, 'Wow, this is pretty cool,' " says Stephenson, now 28 and a struggling actor in Hollywood. "I'm the star of one of the worst movies ever made!"
Stephenson now gets some 75 e-mails a week from "Troll 2" fans as far away as New Zealand. Still, nothing quite prepared him and his cast mates for the movie's screening last September in New York, when fans came in costume, shouted out lines, laughed uproariously and threw popcorn at the screen to commemorate one especially ludicrous scene.
"Nobody was more shocked than we were," says Ewing. "I was up till 3 a.m. signing autographs and posing for pictures. They treated us like we were rock stars."
"Troll 2" screenings are scheduled this spring and summer for San Francisco, Houston, Boston, Los Angeles and Montreal. The movie is referenced in the popular "Guitar Hero II" video game. And Stephenson is directing a feature-length documentary, "Best Worst Movie," (http://www.bestworstmovie.com" target="new">http://www.bestworstmovie.com) in which he chronicles the resurrection of "Troll 2" as a campy cult phenomenon.
"It's only getting bigger," said fan Jeff Conner, of West Hollywood, Calif., who devoted a MySpace page to the movie and has watched it more than 200 times. "It could be the next 'Rocky Horror Picture Show.' "
There is even talk of a "Troll 3," although members of the cast are skeptical that the movie's tricky blend of unintentional awfulness and watchability can be duplicated. Says Hardy, "It's almost like trying to catch lightning in a bottle - you can't do it twice."
Besides, they say, it isn't as if everyone involved set out to make a bad movie.
"It wasn't supposed to be campy," says Stephenson. "Everybody showed up trying to make a great horror film. And we failed miserably."