Best Worst Movie (documentary)

When Michael Stephenson was a young boy in Utah, he got the starring role in a film that was being shot locally by an eccentric Italian husband-and-wife team who knew how to crank out bad movies cheaply. This one, ostensibly a horror, was called “Goblins,” though by the time it was released — straight to video, in 1990 — it had been retitled “Troll 2” in order to capitalize on the marginal success of a 1986 monster flick called “Troll.” The so-called “Troll 2,” however, had no connection whatsoever to the earlier film. It also didn’t have any trolls in it. Here’s a movie that has failed before you even start watching it.

In the last several years, “Troll 2” has gained cult status as a bizarrely, hilariously, epically bad movie. Everything that goes into a film, from the acting to the costumes, from the writing to the hair and makeup, is badly done, making it a singular treat. Midnight screenings of the film play to packed audiences, with fans (who enjoy its badness, not who claim it’s good) reciting their favorite lines ala “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” People show it to their uninitiated friends, eager to bring them into the cult.

But back to that kid. All grown up now, Stephenson was fascinated by the phenomenon that this embarrassing blemish on his résumé had caused, and he set out to document it. “Best Worst Movie” is the result, a riotously funny look back at the behind-the-scenes madness of “Troll 2,” and at the unlikely success it has had in recent years.

Make no mistake: “Best Worst Movie” is not an attempt to explain why “Troll 2” is misunderstood, or to convince us that it’s some under-appreciated work of avant-garde genius. No, Stephenson is well aware that “Troll 2” is complete garbage. So are almost all of the cast members, most of whom cheerfully reunite with Stephenson to swap stories about the production and laugh at how bad it turned out. Some of them, like George Hardy — an Alabama dentist who played Stephenson’s father — have made personal appearances at “Troll 2” screenings to laugh at the film alongside everyone else.

The anecdotes that emerge as Stephenson reunites with his costars are raucous, good-natured tales about low-budget filmmaking at its goofiest. One actor, who played a milk salesman in the movie, was literally in a mental institution during the shoot and was allowed to come out for the days he was needed on the set. (He says he was stoned the whole time.) The actress who played Stephenson’s mother now takes care of her own mother in Salt Lake City and is, to put it delicately, almost certainly mentally ill. Stephenson treats her with respect, though it is hard not to laugh at her spacey ruminations on “Troll 2,” which she seems to think was a good movie.

Another actor, his character having been turned into a plant (that sort of thing happens in “Troll 2”), had to stand stock-still for hours at a time. When he complained, the director had the costume department rework his plant suit so it would cover his mouth.

Ah, yes. The director. His name is Claudio Fragasso (he used the name Drake Floyd in the credits), and he wrote the screenplay with his wife, Rossella Drudi. Both of them appear in “Best Worst Movie,” speaking very broken English and apparently not “getting” the whole thing. Apart from the aforementioned actress, they are just about the only people in the world who earnestly believe “Troll 2” is a quality picture that accurately represents their vision. Drudi defends it vigorously as a satire on vegetarianism. Fragasso attends one of the rowdy screenings and is puzzled by the audience’s response. “People laugh at the funny things, but they also laugh at the not-so-funny things.” The “not-so-funny things” that people laugh at, of course, are the things that Fragasso intended to be taken seriously. The “funny things” are funny for the wrong reasons.

Serving as the documentary’s protagonist, essentially, is George Hardy, an immensely likable, regular ol’ boy described by someone as “the rich man’s Craig T. Nelson.” He has no illusions about his work in “Troll 2.” His own mother, asked about his performance, laughs and says, “He’s no Cary Grant.” He maintains a dental practice in Alexander City, Ala., but is thrilled to go along for the ride as “Troll 2” enjoys its peculiar success.

But it’s a campy, ironic success — he’s famous because he’s a bad actor in a bad movie. People enjoy that sort of thing as far as it goes, but not with the same fervor and devotion that they enjoy, you know, GOOD things. Your 15 minutes run out pretty fast in a situation like that, an issue that “Best Worst Movie” addresses to some extent. The focus, though, is chronicling a strange pop-cultural phenomenon and sharing some laughs about the absurdity of it all. If you’ve ever loved something terrible — or, worse, produced something terrible — “Best Worst Movie” feels your pain.

[You may also be interested in my Cinematical report on watching “Troll 2” for the first time.]

B+ (1 hr., 32 min.; Not Rated, probably R for some F-words.)