Spoilers for Troll 2
The pandemic has promised to be apocalyptic for movies moving forward. Before 2020, cinema had been phasing out movie theaters at an alarming rate, with people opting out of watching films with rotten teenagers throwing popcorn, deaf dads who put their ringtone on high volume, and skyrocketing ticket prices for cheap gimmicks like IMAX and 3D. And trying to find an art film in the Dallas-Fort Worth area has continued to be an embarrassment in the length of the commute. It could get worse: in an article for Harper’s by A. S. Hamrah, he writes, “The end of the consent decrees [The Paramount Consent Decrees] could make it possible for streaming services – from Netflix to Amazon Prime to Disney+ to own movie theaters and use them to screen only their films.” I can see it now. Netflixavision, Amazone Theaters, and Disney Vaults. But far more terrifying than that is the prospect of paying for streaming services and then paying, again, for seeing a movie on the same service. Only Disney would be so egregious as to force Mulan to viewers for, ahem, $30, especially considering that the movie was widely regarded as being a pitiful facsimile to the original. For the record, A. S. Hamrah’s collection of essays has an ominous title that fits here: The Earth Dies Streaming.
So, in 2021, my wife and I bought a projector to showcase films in our garage. The Apeman LC550 projector does quite a bit of heavy-lifting for its asking price of $89, but…all told, that amounts to eight to ten movie tickets, which just so happens to be the amount of people seeing these movies. Granted, one needs also to have the space for showing these films, but that can be arranged whether a garage exists or not. At 120 inches, with a 3000:1 contrast ratio, and at 1080p, you could do far worse. We bought the projector for several reasons. First, in the United States, suburban sprawl and privatized experiences of shopping and entertainment can lead to intense feelings of loneliness and a lack of community. This has been widely studied (see the book Bowling Alone) but it seems that social distancing existed to some extent before the pandemic even arrived.
The combination of the two problems into one manageable solution that is low-cost (over time) is something we are proud of. But as we set up the machine and let the projector flood light over particles wafting in the air, we wondered how we would choose what movies to watch? We opted with our six other friends to draw randomly, with my wife getting the inaugural film. Suddenly after the first film, which went off well, we drew my name.
The sense of responsibility for entertaining became difficult to manage. What movie would be a good combination of insightful commentary and good old-fashioned fun?
I settled for Troll 2 (1992).
On the night of the screening, when asked why I chose the film, I found myself unable to answer cogently. Here I was, fighting back the fascist takeover of movies and film from industries inveigling their way into my home, and here I was trying to build a sense of community that could linger on for weeks, months, (generations!) and I chose what was widely considered one of the worst films ever made.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Troll 2 was not an accident, and I sought to understand both why I chose the movie, and why people choose to watch bad movies in general.
Make no mistake, Troll 2 is unfathomably bad. Joshua (Michael Stephenson) is plagued with the apparition of his dead Grandpa Seth (Robert Ormsby) who scares him at night with stories of Goblins forcing people to eat food that turns them into plants. And then the Goblins eat them! When the father Michael (George Hardy) takes the family, including a prudish wife Diana (Margo Prey) and a headstrong and armstrong daughter Holly (Connie Young) on a house switching vacation with another family in a rural town of Nilbog, Joshua realizes the children’s story about Goblins is all true. They’re here, and it’s up to Joshua and his ghostly Grandpa to take down the Goblins before they eat his family.
But the Waits family is not the only group heading out to Nilbog. After sneaking into Holly’s room as she lifts weights at all hours of the night, Elliott is a boyfriend who promises to go with them on the trip the next morning. Holly approves with an ultimatum: don’t bring the boys. Overwhelmed by peer pressure, he balks, but not before somehow convincing his friends to go with him in an RV and tail his girlfriend and their family with the promise of “free and unattached” girls. The trip ultimately boils down to watching strange Bigfoot movies on the portable television and eating all the supplies. As the movie progresses, each boy lands in a strange predicament, one they never would have imagined when following Elliott’s promises.
The Goblins are overseen by a queen, the MVP of Troll 2 Creedence Leonore Gielgud (Deborah Reed), who seems to live in a church that houses strange bed sheets, a large book on a reading stand that is never opened, and a smoke machine inside a “reimagining” of several large boulders from Stonehenge. From this apparatus she is able to adapt her appearance to her dastardly goals, becoming both quite hideous, and quite beautiful, in order to help her “children”.
Were it not for Gielgud’s over-acting, the film may have died in obscurity. In the best scene of the film, Creedence Leonore Gielgud takes a break from her terrifying plan to go out on the town and have a little fun. The last boy, cooped up in the RV and removed from his friends, notices the television has suddenly changed channel. It’s the queen of the Goblins, but she has used the power of the stonehenge to become young again, and she “sexily” saunters down the street, as seen on TV. The boy is paralyzed by her beauty. Gielgud moans “I’m real” and then produces a corn on the cob that she sneaks unnecessarily into the RV. The boy says that he prefers popcorn. “Well,” Gielgud says, “we’ll just have to heat it up.”
The resulting make-out session in the RV elevates the film from bizarre intrigue into a surreal transcending piece of art. The two manage to pop the corn on the cob by placing it between their mouths and doing…something with it together. The final image of the boy is one of being totally inundated with the stuff, as he gathers his wits and exhaustively chimes, “no, no more popcorn.” But Gielgud has left, a one-cob-stand the boy will never forget.
Eventually the Waits family realizes that the entire town is made up of Goblins disguised as humans who will stop at nothing – even to the point of laying siege on the vacation home – to eat them. In the final act of the film, Joshua holds a séance to bring back Grandpa Seth from…hell? Again, it’s not at all clear exactly where he is at any given moment. But return Grandpa Seth does, either axing Gielgud and amputating her arm, or laying hands on the Stonehenge to seal off the power of the Goblins and the hot Queen herself.
Or so we might think. In the epilogue of the film, Joshua finds himself surrounded once again by Goblins, disguised as his very own family.
The reaction by my friends, who had never seen the movie, was exactly what I wanted. Befuddlement, outright joy, and strange and open-mouthed perplexity all made it in that garage session. How exactly does Grandpa Seth get around? Why do all these scenes seem like porn narratives with all the sex cut out? Why is anything…at all…happening the way it is?
When I thought about what movie to show to my friends, I had considered my favorite film I had seen in 2020, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. But then, trying to picture us watching this slow-burn of a film with austere shots of a beautiful but desolate island, as well as a muted soundscape save for two very important songs, made me realize that bad movies can serve a purpose just as much as good movies.
Bad literature is hard for me to stomach. The only time I am able to read it is if my wife is with me. Which means to some extent that context matters. Of course, we all know this to some degree, but I realized that bad movies in the right context can be a better viewing session than something that is objectively better. Were it not for my friends that night watching Troll 2, I would not have gotten the various readings of the film, such as the porn-y contributions, or how entertaining the boys’ subplots turned out to be. Good films like Portrait of a Lady on Fire may exist better in the mind, and when discussing the work afterwards it has time to distill itself. Bad movies, like Troll 2, exist better in their immediacy. The faster the absurdity the better, and Troll 2‘s absurdity compounds on itself several times ovrr. Why is the milk in the store unrefrigerated? Why does Joshua attempt to skateboard when he is obviously faster running? Why does Holly punch Elliott in the face so hard the scene changes? Where are all the liberated women?
Context for bad movies is nothing new, as Mystery Science Theater 3000 and RedLetterMedia have perfected the craft of creating a forum for watching bad movies. The latter in particular, with their running series “Best of the Worst” has revitalized hard-to-find movies for the general public. They offer, alongside cuts of the crew watching the film in its immediacy (drawing us into the experience with them), a cultivated and discerning eye from almost a decade of discovery. Pick any one of their videos on YouTube and you are whisked away to a strange world just like Troll 2, full of disgusting (but at least not CGI) special effects, plot holes and irregularities, and lame stunts. While YouTube and any conglomerate with an Intellectual Property is cracking down on monetization, choking content creators of their ability to analyze popular features, RedLetterMedia has discovered a gold mine of hardly-known hacks, bringing a strange sense of democracy back into filmmaking.
It’s that gleam in the eye of any would-be director, of seeing a film that inspires or disgusts to such an extent that they tell themselves, “I could make a movie”. And the result is of course almost always terrible. The allure of films in the 21st century should be this, that filmmaking has been so proliferated, from phones and DSLR cameras, that making a film with some technical quality is easier than ever. The technical design of Troll 2 is what draws you in at first. Granted, there are several explicit moments when the cinematographer, unsure of how to end a scene, will drift the camera over to some prop in the room, like a smoke bubble popping, for no other purpose than a stylistic flourish. Still, there are changes in focus, interesting panning shots, low light scenes, dissolves, and so on. It is not the technical language of Troll 2 that is bad, but the…you know…actual language. The acting, in combination to the script, produces some fantastically alien dialogue that no English speaker would ever find themselves saying. Here, for example, Joshua has just pissed on the table full of food left for the Waits family after Grandpa Seth was able to stop time. This is the scene afterward, with Michael taking Joshua to his room:
Joshua: What are you gonna do to me daddy?
Michael: Tighten my belt so I don’t feel hunger pains. Your sister and mother will do likewise. Ok, Joshua. You want to get rough? You wanna show that you don’t like this house by going on a hunger strike? I’ll accept the challenge, but when I was your age I really did suffer from hunger. We’ll see who gets through this, but I’ve got more practice. I’ll see you tomorrow.
Turns out that making a good movie may have less to do with filmmaking after all, and more to do with just good storytelling, and it is in the surreal that Troll 2 gained a cult following. Watching the film makes us realize that the line between something that is good and something that is bad is closer than we might think. The absurd plot progression in a movie like The Rock for example, starring Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, and Ed Harris, does not stray too far from bad movies. But they manage to ride the line because of acting prowess, a joie de vivre that persists even in the film’s darkest moments. To some extent as Updike once wrote, there was always the feeling of shabbiness in Hollywood, and while that may be better hidden in some of the better films, the ones like Troll 2 reveal the baseline. Sure, we can be captivated by a movie, but Troll 2 reveals how it’s done by paradoxically showing us how it’s not.
The Linguistic Turn of “Bad”
My favorite line of Troll 2 comes not from the scene with the popcorn (though that scene is easily the best moment). It comes from the preacher. After Joshua becomes surrounded by the congregation, having been discovered spying on their church service, he is being force-fed the most liquid-y ice cream in the town. Michael races to rescue him. They leave, and the camera zooms in on the preacher as he shakes his head and says in all seriousness, “We need time for some things to happen!”
It’s a brilliant line, not for what it says about the movie – nothing actually is gained from having more time – but for what it says about moviemaking in general. This line fits with one of William Empson’s objects of analysis from his most famous work Seven Types of Ambiguity, which is an ambiguity between the writer and the fiction they create. Here, the line is not really coming from the preacher, but from the makers of the film. Could it be that they need to pad out the movie in order to make it to a feature-length of 90 minutes? It certainly could be, as very little of substance occurs in the final act save for some circuitous fighting and running. Could it be that a prop or design was on its way, and the most-assuredly troublesome shoot needed to delay until all parts arrived on set? Maybe. Whatever the case, I use this line everywhere I go, and I find myself saying it under my breath in some movies that try to throw shitty logic around in order to create plot contrivances that do not make sense. Why are these grown adults in Lucy Foley’s novel The Hunting Party playing drunken Twister and Truth or Dare except to allow “time for some things to happen”? Why in Pixar’s Soul is the Earth Pass so important when it’s perfectly clear both characters landed on Earth as a man and cat without one? They needed “time for some things to happen”. It is the death phrase of many a second act in successful and unsuccessful movies alike, and if it wasn’t for Troll 2, I might not have realized how to describe my discontent. But now I do.
In any case, watching bad movies as a group is essential for community formation. They offer the opportunity for surprise and scandal, for hilarious attempts to plead to the screen, “What the fuck” as you wrestle with the most barebones of premises. It opens up questions for the terms we give films. What exactly is a “classic”? How does one know what is objectively good in a film without the comparison of other viewers? Can one camera angle offer several interpretations? And what are the limits of logic in film when it comes to the prospect of enjoyment?
Bad movies are a difficult pleasure. If entertainment is “enjoyment without obligation” then the central charge of bad movies is above that. Our job is to analyze where the director ends and the product begins. Call it an autopsy, a postmortem, and arriving as the coroner at the scene of the crime has never been so fun.