When it was finished, there was no theatrical release. Trolls were nowhere to be found. Instead vegetarian goblins were the enemies of the Waits family, and what was performed in true earnest, went straight to VHS and BETA, leading the young Stephenson to turn off his VCR and the parents and sister of George Hardy who played the family patriarch, Michael Waits, to avow, “This is the worst movie ever made.” Over the years, Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB concurred with the Hardy family and TROLL 2 garnered the moniker “the worst movie ever made.”
But a strange thing happened. Somewhere in time, TROLL 2 drew a following - an ever growing following - around the globe. Suddenly, midnight screenings a la “Rocky Horror Picture Show” took shape, TROLL 2 clubs formed, people dressed up as the goblins from Nilbog appearing at Horror Fests and parties and Halloween galas, and Stephenson and George Hardy began to receive emails from devoted fans exclaiming, “This is the BEST MOVIE EVER.” Stephenson, now a filmmaker, had his curiosity more than piqued with this outpouring of affectionate raves. Maybe TROLL 2 wasn’t that bad after all. Maybe as a kid he just “didn’t get it.” And what was it that was attracting such a devoted audience after all these years?
Reconnecting with George Hardy, his on-screen dad in TROLL 2, Stephenson and Hardy set out on the wildest ride of their lives - a four year journey, complete with 400 hours of film, probably 400,000 jet miles between the two of them, and a newfound love and respect for a film both had desperately tried to put behind them. With 20-20 hindsight and a new audience of devotees, Stephenson and Hardy hunted down every original cast member, traveled the world over, screened TROLL 2 hundreds of times, and even reconnected with director Claudio Fragasso, leading to this documentary, some 20 years in the making, the behind-the-scenes story of the good, the bad and the ugly of BEST WORST MOVIE.
Spending a year editing his 400 hours of film, Stephenson and crew, “spent a long painful time of putting together this process of organizing every clip by every person that was in it, by every scene that was discussed. We really made sure that we knew what we had before we even started cutting the story. It paid off. As painful as it was as we were logging and capturing, we actually took shorthand notes of every second of footage in a notebook because it was easier to highlight and find. Then once we actually cut the story, the first rough cut only took us 3 months and then we refined.”
Done in narrative by Stephenson punctuated with plenty of live footage of Hardy with events and fan reaction on this growing cult phenomena, Stephenson doesn’t just take a look at the “now”, he journeys back in time with each cast member, and even Fragrasso, for a trip down memory lane, catching up with each in a very “up close and personal” way, lending to a sense of mortality and wistful dreams that have fallen to the wind. With many of the original cast, it’s fun to play catch up, but then with others, there is unrequited sadness with Stephenson artfully captures.
Poignant, raucous and laugh-out-loud funny, the first thing that strikes one on seeing BEST WORST MOVIE is the love of this new project that Hardy and Stephenson have and beyond that, the camaraderie that has grown between the two men since TROLL 2. The other standout factor is the die-hard fan base TROLL 2 now commands and the ebullience and celebratory emotion that follows the film wherever it plays. Not bad for something that one’s own parents had condemned as being “the worst move ever.”
But this journey down memory lane wasn’t always joyful and, in fact, was very necessary to the creation of the BEST WORST MOVIE, as we see with appearances by Stephenson and Hardy and several other TROLL 2 cast members at a Horror Fest in the United States and fan fest in the United Kingdom. “It was an interesting thing for me because as a filmmaker I was excited because here was the reality for a lot of people and celebrities. Up until that point, [TROLL 2] was sold out screenings, phenomenon, rah, rah, and I kept saying “this is just one note. There’s not a movie here. This isn’t the flip side.” We have these moments at the horror convention and at the UK. It was exciting but I remember just looking around and it was just the most depressing atmosphere ever. Nobody is having a good time. A lot of people there are getting paid $5 to sign an autograph for something they did 20 years ago. It was just real depressing.”
Very pragmatic about BEST WORST MOVIE, Stephenson admits that “It’s a challenge just getting people to sit down and watch a movie, let alone a documentary and one about trolls that aren’t really trolls.” But it’s the heart that he and Hardy bring to BEST WORST MOVIE that makes this more than worth a watch. A common bond that drives this documentary is its catharsis for each and the emotional embrace of the past that unfolds. According to Stephenson who has long stated that he “hated TROLL 2", by the making of BEST WORST MOVIE, “I’m growing closer to TROLL 2. This whole experience has been this wild catharsis of sorts. I love it. Having a chance to make a first film that is so personal and so special to me, what more could you ask for. But then to pick up on these relationships from 20 years ago and to have something that in the past was so embarrassing to me and something that I wanted nothing to do with, provide me with some of the most positive experiences and some of the most rich experiences of my life to date - it’s been amazing.”
Some of the more comical moments are elicited thanks to the repeated appearance and commentary of TROLL 2 director Fragasso who, I must say, comes across as a complete ass. Describing his former actors as “dogs”, with their acting talent as “no talent”, “awful” and “horrible”, while their current recollections are “lies”, it comes as a surprise when Stephenson describes his relationship with Fragasso as being “good.” “He is a very passionate filmmaker. He’s got that hot Italian blood, so one moment he’s upset and yelling and the next moment he likes you. But, in the end he ends up saying one of the most poignant things - ‘whether a film scares you , or whether it makes you laugh or whether it makes you cry, one of the most important things is that it moves you.’” With that in mind, BEST WORST MOVIE succeeds on all counts.
Has Stephenson come to embrace his past through this experience? The proof is in the pudding. “This is absolutely a part of me. Everybody in their life has experiences that they are embarrassed by or that they felt bad about or wished they didn’t do. But eventually, you reach a point in your life where you look back and see that these experiences really made you who you are. And that’s exactly the case with TROLL 2...Whatever you decide to do, if your heart’s not there, it’s probably not the right thing for you to do. The most important thing I think you can do with any project now, is to make sure it comes from the heart. And you have to trust yourself in what does feel right...trust what your heart is telling you. I know it sounds kind of cliche but I think that’s the most important thing that I’ve learned.”
If BEST WORST MOVIE shows us nothing else, for Stephenson and Hardy it’s that “you can’t take yourself seriously all the time. You have to be willing to laugh at yourself. If you’re willing to just not take everything so seriously it can lead you to some opportunities that you’d never foreseen.”
Follow your dreams. Follow your heart. BEST WORST MOVIE - living proof that times does heal all wounds - and bad movies.
Written and directed by Michael Stephenson.