100 Film Favorites – #11: Troll 2
(Claudio Fragasso, 1990)
“Peter was a courageous boy, but that dawn he could feel fear stick to his skin, like dew on leaves.”
The moment of truth has arrived. I’m sure people have been waiting with baited breath for today’s entry to pop up somewhere in the Countdown. Well, here it is. Maybe you expected it to rank even higher. But, given its oft-cited status as “worst movie ever,” I couldn’t in good conscience rank it among my “ten best”…it would be a disservice of sorts. So here it stands, like Moses overlooking Canaan – just at the border of the Top 10, gazing upon the Promised Land, but never to enter.
Troll 2, for any of you who might somehow have avoided coming within about 200 feet of me at any point in the last 8 years and therefore still haven’t seen it, tells the story of the Waits family, who travel into the backcountry one idyllic day for a summer vacation “house exchange” with the Pleasants, a family from the quaint little village of Nilbog.
Young protagonist Joshua is wary of the trip, his fear fueled by bedtime stories from his dear old Grandpa Seth. The old codger tells tales of “the goblins,” foul forest-dwelling creatures who devour people “with a voracity that has no equal on Earth.” But the goblins are picky eaters, and “vegetarians” to boot: before they can eat humans, the human in question must first be made to consume a mysterious green glop which will slowly render him or her “half-man, half-plant, the goblins’ favorite food.” Grandpa Seth insists that “goblins still exist,” waiting in the darkest corners of the world’s woodlands to…force you to eat green stuff…so that it will plantify you…so they can then eat you in turn…it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But give him some credit – considering the fact that Seth has been dead for nearly a year, the fact that he’s saying anything at all is pretty remarkable.
Other members of the Waits clan are more enthusiastic to be Nilbog-bound. There’s hard-working father Michael Waits, and wild-eyed mother – um, something- Waits (I’ve seen this film more than 15 times and still don’t know, so they must not say it in the movie itself [edit: according to Wikipedia, her first name is Diana]). The Waits parents hope the trip will help their son “banish Grandpa Seth from his mind” and stop him from seeing spectral manifestations of departed relations.
Rounding out the family unit is Joshua’s teenage sister, Holly, whose hobbies include working out (both weight-lifting and jazzercising in Garfield t-shirts) and spending time with her boyfriend, the ambiguously bicurious Elliot Cooper. Holly invites Elliot along on the road trip, on the condition that he leave his posse of guy friends behind. He agrees, but then on the morning in question he fails to show. Despite Holly’s protestations, the Waitses hit the road.
The journey is a long one, filled with plant-themed nightmares and a visit by Grandpa Seth masquerading as a homeless man. He straight-up warns Joshua to steer clear of Nilbog. “It’s an evil place,” he says. “It even gives ME the creeps.” Just outside Nilbog, the family encounters Elliot, who has traveled to the town in an RV full of his “boys.” Holly is furious, and the Waitses continue on into Nilbog, where they move into the Pleasants’ home (Joshua notices that the departing Pleasants all have the same awkwardly daubed-on “mole” on the side of their faces, “in the shape of a clover leaf”). Joshua’s suspicions that nefarious goblin-based antics are at work are confirmed when he spies a town sign in a mirror. “NILBOG!” he exclaims. “It’s GOBLIN spelled backwards!”
Most of the film consists of Joshua (with occasional help from Grandpa Seth) botching the Nilbog residents’ many attempts to feed the Waits family assorted green foodstuffs. It might seem like this would get repetitive, but Troll 2 keeps it fresh by introducing a whole rogues gallery of Nilbogians and relying on Elliot’s tag-along “friends” to bloat the body count (if dying as human/plant frosting mush counts as a “body”). Among the goblin shape-shifters passing as human residents are such unforgettable characters as Sheriff Gene Freak, the head of local law enforcement, who successfully feeds one of Elliot’s friends a green bagel, a fire-and brimstone preacher who warns of the dangers of eating meat, and a shopkeeper who decries coffee as “the devil’s drink” and transforms another of Elliot’s amigos by slipping him some very expired “Nilbog Milk.”
But truly the breakout star of the Nilbog bunch is Creedence Leonore Gielgud (played by my dear Facebook friend Deborah Reed), the vampy “Goblin Queen,” who spends most of the movie smothered under pancake makeup and coke-bottle glasses, but doesn’t let that fact temper her over-the-top acting by one iota. Creedence’s lair holds the “Stonehenge magic stone,” from which the goblins draw their powers, and Creedence herself finishes off Elliot’s doomed friends (grinding the friend further along in the transformation into a plant-man “milkshake” and feeding it to his companion).
On the whole, Grandpa Seth does a fair job of keeping the family safe, even if the rest of the Waitses refuse to believe in him. In one particularly famous scene, Grandpa “stops time for 30 seconds” before the family can eat a feast laid out for them by the Pleasants. Over the course of more than a minute, Joshua meanders around his family members, trying to concoct a plan, as the “frozen” actors awkwardly fidget in place. Finally, he exclaims, “I MUST do it!” At which point, he climbs on to the table, unzips his trousers, and urinates all over the food. More than one way to skin a cat, I guess. Father Waits chews his son out, shouting that Joshua has violated the rites of hospitality, and “YOU CAN’T PISS ON HOSPITALITY!”
Grandpa Seth saves the day yet again when the sinister preacher corners him and Joshua, swiping the molotov cocktail they had hoped to use to “create some confusion.” In a moment with hopelessly garbled audio that took me many a viewing to parse, the preacher exclaims, “Go back to Hell, old man! Return to your kingdom of shadows.” Joshua asks Grandpa Seth if he is really spending his afterlife in Hell, and Seth explains, “No, but I know a trick…that a friend of mine who WAS there…taught me!” With a snap of his fingers, Grandpa Seth summons a lightning-bolt transition that somehow explodes the Molotov cocktail, setting the preacher ablaze. I guess they teach some pretty interesting tricks in Hell. In the fire, the “preacher” is reduced to his true goblin form, and the Waitses are finally convinced that there may be something to Joshua’s story.
Elsewhere, Queen Creedence has realized that eliminating this latest batch of human interlopers will prove harder than previously thought. Calling upon “all my old power,” she steps behind the Stonehenge magic stone and emerges…actually pretty attractive. The newly-hot Creedence slinks off into the night, and soon comes to Elliot’s RV, the sole resident of which is Brent, Elliot’s only surviving friend (Elliot himself having teamed up with the marginally more survival-capable Waitses). In a scene which truly belongs alongside Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” number and the Psycho shower scene in the annals of cinematic history, Creedence climbs aboard the camper and seduces Brent – with an ear of corn. Pulling the corn from her garter, Creedence offers him the ear and asks, “Do you want some?” Brent says sure, he “loves popcorn.” “Well then,” Creedence replies, “all we have to do is heat it up.” In the hottest money-shot in all of cornography, Brent and Creedence make out / gnaw corn in a single, sensual movement. As their passion builds and the music swells, the corn spontaneously STARTS POPPING OFF THE COB, spraying gallons of popcorn over the love-making duo.
Meanwhile, the Waits, who now all agree they’ll need Grandpa Seth’s help to get out of this alive, have convened a seance to speak with him. The wily old man clues them in to a secret: only the “power of goodness” can defeat the monsters. Putting their “goodness” to use, the Waits press their palms to the Stonehenge magic stone, and suddenly the Goblins are having a very bad day. Creedence quickly extricates herself from a mountain of sex-popcorn, only to discover she is growing wizened and dessicated once more. She and her Goblin forces race toward her fortress and the Stonehenge magic stone, but it’s too late. Joshua keeps them at bay by brandishing a mystery gift bequeathed to him by his ghostly grandpa, which turns out to be “A DOUBLE-DECKER BALONEY SANDWICH!” Horrified by the “toxins” in the lunchmeat and the “goodness” on their magic stone, the goblins begin convulsing. Eyes explode, goblins fall of balconies, and many a lightning-bolt transition ensue (I counted 19 on my last viewing). When the dust settles, Creedence and her brood are vanquished.
The Waitses return home, apparently victorious. But, in a twist ending, Mrs. Waits is inexplicably devoured in the shower. Joshua walks in just in time to see a goblin standing over his mother’s half-plant corpse, offering him a fistful of the greenish sludge. “Do you want some, Joshua?” it asks.
There’s still plenty of “goodness” in this movie I haven’t addressed. Often labeled the “worst movie of all time,” Troll 2 is more accurately described as one of the strangest movies of all time (though many aspects of the production ARE astoundingly inept). Much of this strangeness (particularly the bizarre, stilted dialogue) is the result of Claudio Fragasso and screenwriter Isabella Drudi speaking only limited English, but insisting that the lines be spoken exactly as written. For instance, the actress portraying Holly was rebuffed when attempting to change a line wherein she tells Elliot that her father “would cut off your little nuts and EAT THEM!”
Really, every aspect of the production gives you something to talk about, but since this post is already becoming a behemoth, here’s the bullet-point version of some of the film’s notable features:
-It’s called Troll 2, and yet features no trolls. Only “goblins.”
-Isabella Drudi, who also happens to be Fragasso’s wife, was inspired to create the story when several of her friends became vegetarians, and it “pissed her off.”
-Costume designer Laura Gemser, who spent most of her career “costuming” Italian porn stars, would later reuse the film’s goblin costumes (burlap sack tunics with shoddy rubber Halloween maks) in the later sword-and-sorcery movie Quest for the Magic Sword.
-The actors were primarily pulled from towns in Utah near where Fragasso was shooting the film, and most had no professional training. The actor playing the shopkeep actually “performed” his role while on a work release program from a mental institution, returning to the asylum after each day of shooting. Looking back on his manic performance, he recalls, “I wasn’t acting.”
-In 2009, Michael Stephenson (who played Joshua in the film) directed a documentary called Best Worst Movie, detailing the making of Troll 2 and its recent rise to “fame” after languishing in obscurity for two decades. Stephenson’s directorial debut (and released under his label, Magic Stone Productions), the documentary, in contrast to its subject, is a very well-made film. Over the course of his “journey,” Stephenson reunites with most of the cast (much of the film focuses on George Hardy, the “dad from Troll 2,” who in everyday life is an Alabama dentist), and we learn their stories before, during, and after the making of the film. Some of the stories are quite funny, and others prove surprisingly dark and sad. For example, Robert Ormsby (Grandpa Seth) sullenly claims never to have accomplished anything in his life, and Margo Prey (Mrs. Waits), who cares for a shut-in, disabled mother, seems to have lost her mind. But overall, Best Worst Movie is an intriguing look at the origins and ascension of a particularly bizarre cult phenomenon, and poses the question of what makes art good or bad. After all, if a film still has us laughing, quoting, and talking about it almost 25 years after the fact, is it truly the worst one out there, or one of the best?
To be completely serious for a moment, Troll 2 has had a big influence on my life. I first discovered the film in 2005, and ever since I have done what I could to “spread the gospel” and transmit the Nilbog pandemic. Over the last eight years, I have shared the film with many different circles of friends, introducing at least two busloads of TJ band kids to the wonders of Creedence, Grandpa Seth, and corn-centric sex scenes. In 2009, I met George Hardy at a screening of Best Worst Movie. The next year, I screened Troll 2 for my fraternity brothers. Despite their initial misgivings, they ended up loving the film, and the event inspired the establishment of the Brian Terrill Movie Night as an official PMA fraternity event…an event which would in turn give rise to its own Facebook page, and eventually this very list. In 2011, I successfully lobbied for the film to be elected the “cult ballot winner” at the “Super/natural” W&M Global Film Festival. When the double billing of Troll 2 and Best Worst Movie first flickered on in a Kimball Theatre packed with my friends and colleagues, and the first ethereal tones accompanied the opening line, “Peter was a courageous boy…”, I nearly shed tears of joy. The next year, when the festival director told me Troll 2 had been the highlight of the 2011 event, I did.
I would not be where I am today if not for this movie. It’s grown fairly ubiquitous and well-known now, and doesn’t need me carrying it around anymore to reach the masses. But I’d like to think I played at least a small part in the film’s rise to simultaneous fame and infamy. Whatever the case, it’s certainly given me plenty to talk about, and it gave me this page to share even more of my favorite movies with all of you.
I salute you, Troll 2.
[Super ultra final note: People waiting for a The Room post – don’t hold your breath. I think, as far as “best worst movies” go, it’s a newcomer that’s gotten too big for its britches. If people are still talking about / screening it a decade from now, then I’ll reconsider giving it an official place in my pantheon of truly “classic” bad movies. Don’t get me wrong, I still like The Room (and returned to the same theater where I met George Hardy to meet Tommy Wiseau himself) it’s just not “official” yet. Give it a few more years.]
For those of you who absolutely need your The Room fix, here’s “Tik Tok Terrible,” a fan-video of my own composition, which pays tribute to Troll 2 and some other odd, off-kilter, “best worst” productions, including The Room, as well as past Countdown selections Manos: The Hands of Fate and The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. Check out the comments on YouTube to see some actual online correspondence between me, Michael Stephenson, and Creedence herself, Deborah Reed!