Real Filmmakers

'Best Worst Movie' entertains—and makes one think about the nature of art

There are lots of bad ideas for movies, but usually, films are bad not because of bad ideas, but because they follow formulas and rules, and are thus boring and predictable.

But to take an idea that's genuinely (instead of imitatively) awful all the way to completion, you need something like heart, blind egoism and unselfconscious incompetence. Unfortunately, in modern Hollywood, the amateurish nut-jobbery needed for this is rarely allowed to propagate, because there are so many approval levels involved in the making of any given movie that most of the interesting rough edges will be shaved down; the choppy editing will be smoothed out; and the technical glitches will be reined in. That's why watching the average Hollywood movie is like eating something that tastes exactly like the inside of your mouth.

But every now and then, true awfulness will find its way through the morass of mediocrity, and we'll get a special, shining gem. John Travolta, through sheer star power, managed this with Battlefield Earth, and Kevin Costner has made something of a career of overblown bad filmmaking. But the best of bad film comes when a low-budget nobody acquires the mistaken belief that he (or, rarely, she) knows what he's doing.

When he was 11, Michael Stephenson had the great honor to appear in exactly such a film, Troll 2. Nearly 20 years later, he decided to make the documentary Best Worst Movie to explore what, exactly, went so wrong in the making of that movie that it produced an inadvertent cinema classic. While an outsider might have made a film that simply poked fun at the non-actors and clueless writer/director who made this atrocity, Stephenson lets the people of Troll 2 speak for themselves, producing a series of revelatory moments that would put Raymond Carver to shame.

Though he was arguably the star of Troll 2, Stephenson doesn't put himself on camera much in Best Worst. Instead, he focuses on George Hardy, a small-town dentist who dreamed of becoming a movie star. Cast in Troll 2 as the father of a family beset by goblins, Hardy gives a performance that is to acting what soup is to architecture: utterly unrelated. But in Best Worst, Hardy comes off as an affable ham. When some bad-film aficionados arrange a nationwide tour of Troll 2, with Hardy as the guest of honor, he gets to experience a little of the fame he dreamed about while scraping molars.

At first, Hardy is in thespian-dentist heaven, and he has a good-natured appreciation of his acting's awfulness and the badness of his film. But eventually, the rigors of non-stardom wear on him, and we see a sort of self-awareness dawn as he realizes that being a joke isn't quite as fun as telling one.

Along the way, Hardy and Stephenson try to reassemble the cast of Troll 2 for a big blowout hometown screening. And that's where weird meets sad. Margo Prey, who played Hardy's wife in the film, lives a strange hermit life with her disabled mother. When Hardy and Stephenson try to talk to her, she's paranoid, oddly affected and somewhat agoraphobic, but still thinks that she can make it in the movie business after a 20-year hiatus and with a single credit to her name. Hardy seems deeply shaken by the meeting, and starts to see a dark side to dreams of stardom.

The most amusing of the characters might be Troll 2 director Claudio Fragasso, who is excited to hear about the re-release of his film, and is then surprised to learn that people think his movie is funny. He was convinced he'd made a haunting and horrifying commentary on the terrors of vegetarianism. (The evil goblins are vegetarians, you see, because vegetarians are scary.) Fragasso's best scene occurs during a panel discussion in front of a live audience; as the actors from Troll 2 laugh at their on-screen awfulness, he butts in to tell them that they are idiots and that they do not understand his work; then he insults the audience and storms out. Because that's what artists do.

Sadly missing from the film is Troll 2's costume designer, Laura Gemser, whom elderly perverts will remember as the title character in '70s porn classic Black Emanuelle. She's responsible for a big chunk of Troll 2's weird badness. The film is not actually about trolls (strangely, they called it Troll 2 to cash in on the success of Troll, a movie that was not, in fact, successful), but rather about tiny goblins. For their costumes, Gemser outfitted little people in immobile rubber masks that were clearly purchased at a low-rent Halloween shop, and then finished the look by wrapping them in burlap sacks, because burlap and horror are one.

The idiosyncratic weirdness of Troll 2 makes it watchable, but the exploration of the people behind that weirdness makes Best Worst Movie riveting. It says something important about art that small-town nobodies, deranged egoists and several people who would likely be labeled as mentally ill if they ever received medical attention could come together and make an intensely interesting, if in some ways incompetent, film like Troll 2, while in Hollywood, high-paid consultants and multi-million-dollar executives churn out flavorless crap that will be forgotten two weeks after the last misleading advertisement stops running.

You can watch Best Worst for sheer entertainment value, but it also excels as a quiet commentary on what it takes to make something rough and original in a copycat business run by smooth-edged clones.