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It didn't take long for 12-year-old Michael Stephenson to realize the 1990 supernatural horror-comedy he’d spent three weeks shooting in a remote Mormon town wasn't going to be the next Gremlins. "We put the VHS in and we all sat around the TV, and seven seconds in, my dad's jaw dropped and he said, 'Oh, Michael, this is a terrible movie,'" the former child actor told ABC News 20 years after his traumatic first watch.
If you haven't yet experienced the guilty pleasures of Troll 2, Stephenson Sr.'s film criticism seems a little kneejerk. Otherwise, you know his reaction was actually kind. Yes, by the seven-second mark, we've already heard a snippet of that cheap, repetitive score — one part is reportedly just a synthesizer demo on double speed. More notably, we've seen the movie's 'terrifying' monsters, a bunch of slow-moving, grunting goblins sporting immovable Halloween masks and presumably giant potato sacks. And it's all downhill from there.
The storyline is utterly insane (vegetarian goblins turn tourists into humanoid plants for food), the acting would embarrass even the most hopeless bad am-dram society and the dialog makes Tommy Wiseau seem like the greatest screenwriter of our time. Yet as with the latter's notorious passion project The Room, there's something magical about so many uniformly terrible elements converging as one.
Unlike the Sharknado franchise which deliberately aims for so-bad-it's-good status, Troll 2 was a genuine attempt by all those involved to make a great film. There aren't any knowing winks to the camera or C-list actors sending up their reputations. Its sheer awfulness is entirely unintentional. A straight-faced Rossella Drudi — who conceived the baffling story as a rather extreme riposte to her friends' veggie agenda — once even described it as a "ferocious analysis of today's society."
Of course, the film's unorthodox shoot meant it was always destined for home video hell. Director Claudio Fragasso, a proud exponent of Italian shlock with a CV including Alice Cooper werewolf rock star movie Dog Monster, had a limited grasp of English. In fact, costume designer Laura Gemser — who'd previously starred in erotic franchise Emmanuelle just to add to all the randomness — was the only crew member able to clearly communicate with the all-American cast.
Despite this, Fragasso insisted that the actors recite his preposterous script verbatim, even when they pointed out that no other human would ever utter lines such as "I'm the victim of a nocturnal rapture." It's why most of Troll 2's script sounds like it's been fed into Google Translate and back again. "We need some time for some things to happen" is another particularly big clunker, as is the first mother-son scene's completely unnecessary exposition ("It was also very difficult for your father, and for Holly, and for me his daughter.")
You can't blame the language barrier, however, for all of Troll 2's general sense of WTF? Why is there a frantic dance routine that redefines the term second-hand embarrassment? Why is Arnold (Darren Ewing) transformed into a tree instead of disgusting green goo? And why does Joshua (Stephenson) decide the only way to prevent his family from chowing down on their poisoned food is by urinating all over it?
Even an ensemble of Oscar winners would struggle to make such incoherent material convincing. So it's inevitable that the cast of amateurs plucked from an open small-town audition flounder spectacularly. George Hardy was (and still is) a practicing dentist when he landed the role of Michael, the father figure responsible for the film's most immortal line ("You can't piss on hospitality"). Even more remarkably, creepy store owner Sandy was played by Don Packard, a stoned mental patient on day release who later admitted to murderous thoughts about his youngest co-star.
The source of Packard's fury actually delivers one of the relatively better performances as the perma-terrified boy advised beyond-the-grave by his Orson Welles-lookalike grandfather. A couple of adults appear to realize the ludicrousness of it all, too, with both Deborah Reed and Mike Hamill hamming it up to eleven as the villainous Druid Witch Creedence Leonore Gielgud and overzealous priest, respectively. The former's corn on the cob-based sex scene has to be seen to be believed.
But a complete lack of experience and an outright ban on any preparation (Fragasso would reportedly only give the scripts out on a scene-by-scene basis) ensures that nearly every line is delivered with the emotional capacity of a cardboard box. Poor Darren Ewing's elongated "Oh My God!" may be the film's most famous crime against acting. Yet every cast member ends up either stumbling their words, glancing at the camera, or blatantly blinking when they're supposed to be frozen still.
Of course, it's this all-around ineptitude that makes Troll 2 so rewatchable. Every time you sit down for its 94 minutes of sheer lunacy, you notice something else that should never have made the final edit. The near-fall as Joshua skateboards toward the Nilbog ("it's goblin spelled backward") town church. The extra who picks up and then puts down a kitchen knife in the banquet scene for no apparent reason. The misplaced goblin who desperately tries to get out of view during the climactic home invasion.
And we've not even mentioned that the film has absolutely no ties at all with the Julia Louis-Dreyfus-starring Troll released four years previously. Or that not even a single troll makes an appearance. Simply nothing about the film makes any sense.
Stretching credulity somewhat, Fragasso claims that Troll 2 was always supposed to make people laugh. But although most of the humor is accidental, there are a few occasions when you can almost see the comedic wheels turning. Lines such as "I'm still trying to learn the layout of this house, Joshua" (Grandpa Seth when his ghost emerges in the wrong room) and "Think about the cholesterol" (Creedence warns Joshua as he devours the goblins' kryptonite, a double-decker Bologna sandwich) could actually work in, say, a Mel Brooks parody.
With such an endlessly quotable script, it's unsurprising that Troll 2 eventually became a belated fixture of the midnight movie crowd, with Patton Oswalt one of its biggest advocates. In 2008 the shooting location of Morgan, Utah, gave Fragasso the keys to the town during a dedicated festival named Nilbog Invasion. And the film gained further traction shortly after with Best Worst Movie, an aptly-titled documentary about its unexpected second wind made by Stephenson himself.
Sadly, Fragasso has yet to take up the Morgan mayor's offer to shoot a sequel (confusingly, two unrelated films titled Troll 3 already exist). But then again, how could you ever improve on such a masterpiece of god-awful yet ridiculously entertaining cinema? Now we're just off to tighten our belts by one loop so we don't feel hunger pains.