Judge Erich Asperschlager is the best worst movie reviewer.
"Bad food is bad, and bad books are bad, but bad movies are not always bad."—Scott Weinberg, Cinematical.com
Being a DVD reviewer means occasionally sitting through terrible movies. Fortunately, the pain only lasts for 90 minutes. When you're an actor in a bad movie, though, the pain can last forever. Most B-movie actors are happy to see their films fade into obscurity, but what happens when a movie you want to forget becomes famous for being the worst ever made? If you're former child actor turned director Michael Stephenson, you reunite your co-stars and make a documentary about the experience.
At turns funny, bizarre, and bittersweet, Best Worst Movie looks at the actors, filmmakers responsible for making Troll 2, and the fans who made it a massive cult hit.
Shot for relatively little money by a group of amateur actors and an Italian director who didn't speak much English, Troll 2 is a train wreck of a movie about a family who ends up in a small town populated by vegetarian goblins who want to turn them into plants and devour them. It's packed with terrible dialogue, stiff acting, not-so-special effects, and plot holes the size of Texas. By all rights, it should have lasted three weeks on the shelves of a handful of VHS rental shops and then disappeared forever. But it didn't. Thanks to regular showings on HBO, and word of mouth, Troll 2 grew in popularity and notoriety among fans of so-bad-it's-good cinema.
With Best Worst Movie, Michael Stephenson wrestles with what it's like to be famous for doing something terrible, mostly by looking at it through the eyes of fellow actor George Hardy, the Alabama dentist who played his father in Troll 2. Hardy is a bubbly guy, beloved by everyone in his hometown—most of whom have no idea that he was ever in a movie, let alone the "worst movie ever." Through the course of Best Worst Movie, we see Hardy embrace his infamy, delighting throngs of screaming fans with recitations of his most famous line from the movie: "You can't piss on hospitality!"
Not everyone who took part in Troll 2 is as happy about its success as Hardy is. Connie Young, who played his daughter Holly, is willing to take part in a few Q&As, but she admits to leaving the movie off of her resume; former mental patient Don Packard, who played the store owner, treats the phenomenon as a kind of waking dream; while Margot Prey, who played the mom, has all but retreated into isolation. During one of the movie's most heartbreaking sequences, an unannounced Stephenson and Hardy pop by the house Prey shares with her ailing mother. Although she is polite enough to let them in and talk to the camera, you can tell it pains her to do so, and that no one is particularly comfortable to be there.
The most awkward moments in the film belong to director Claudio Fragasso and his screenwriter wife Rossella Drudi—not because they are embarrassed by the movie, but because they seem oblivious to its flaws. Fragasso in particular borders on delusional when he talks about Troll 2, calling it "an important film" that "examines many serious and important issues." Even when he travels to America to attend a fan screening, Fragasso sees the long line of people as evidence that his movie has finally found the audience it deserves. It's only a matter of time, however, before the projector rolls and a bewildered Fragasso is confronted by people laughing at things that weren't supposed to be funny. He can't understand why anyone would make fun of his movie. During one Q&A, he even heckles the actors, telling them they don't know what they're talking about and calling them "dogs." His behavior seems bizarre until you realize that this is the guy who directed Troll 2.
Like most of the actors in Troll 2, Stephenson and Hardy had no idea how bad the movie was until they saw it years later. But what about the fans? What's their excuse? Best Worst Movie tries to understand why anyone would willingly watch a terrible movie over and over again. You could make a case for some kind of cinematic masochism, but the best answers point to the sincerity with which Fragasso and his crew made Troll 2. The best bad movies are made with passion and vision—just ask fans of B-movie king Ed Wood. That Fragasso still rankles at the idea that his movie is anything less than high social commentary is reason enough to watch Troll 2 at least once.
Best Worst Movie does a good job of capturing a wide range of viewpoints about the legacy of Troll 2, with one glaring omission. Except for a few scenes, Michael Stephenson stays behind the camera. In most documentaries, it makes sense for the filmmaker to be a quiet observer. But not here. Did Stephenson make this movie to exorcise a particular demon? Or to reconnect with his costars? Or to show appreciation for Troll 2's rabid fan base? We don't know, because he never tells us—leaving Hardy to do most of the talking.
Best Worst Movie isn't about how Troll 2 was made, or about its cult following, and although George Hardy is in the bulk of the movie, it's not about him either. On the surface, Best Worst Movie is as fun, weird, and brain melting as Troll 2—in the best possible way—but it also gets to a raw truth about filmmaking. It's not easy to make a great movie, and it might be even harder to make a great bad movie. The success or failure of a film comes down to a communal alchemy between writers, directors, actors, editors, composers, crewmembers, and, ultimately, fans. As good as Best Worst Movie is, if not for great film festival buzz and the championing of filmmakers like Edgar Wright, it could easily have fallen into the same movie limbo Troll 2 seemed destined for. Even now, it's hard to say whether this documentary will go on to fame and fortune, or sell only to fans of Claudio Fragasso's cult classic. I hope Best Worst Movie gets the wider audience it deserves if for no other reason than because it's not the snarky, cynical cash-in it could have been. Like Fragasso, Stephenson loves what he's doing. That he made a significantly better film than Troll 2 is just icing on the cake.
The DVD package shows just as much care and dedication as the movie itself. From the bright green case to artist Tyler Stout's cover illustration—a collage packed with characters and moments from the documentary and the movie that inspired it—Best Worst Movie on DVD is a good argument against an all-digital download future.
Because Best Worst Movie was shot with standard def digital video cameras, the picture is on the soft side. Although this isn't the kind of movie that screams for hi-def clarity, I'm afraid it will look dated sooner than it should. The 5.1 audio mix is clear and well-balanced, although it doesn't give the rear speakers much to do.
Best Worst Movie comes with an impressive collection of bonus features for an indie production. There's more than an hour's worth of deleted scenes and interviews, including more of Fragasso and Packard's entertaining ramblings; an interview with fan-favorite Deborah Reed (the Goblin Queen); and a longer look at George Hardy's horror convention experience and the Alamo Drafthouse Troll 2 event held in Morgan, Utah, where the film was shot. There's also an amusing anti-texting PSA with Hardy, several Troll 2-inspired fan made short movies and music videos, and a filmmaker bio. In lieu of a commentary track, there's an 82-minute audio-only Q&A with Stephenson and Hardy, hosted by Jeff Goldsmith, originally recorded for the Creative Screenwriting Magazine podcast. Even though it's available for free online, the Q&A is a cool addition to the DVD, packed with humor and insights into the making of both movies.
Best Worst Movie is as entertaining, moving, and thought-provoking as Claudio Fragasso thinks Troll 2 is. Not guilty!
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