If you starred in one of the worst films ever made, a target of instant derision and international mockery, how long would it take for you to embrace the film and its growing status as an unwitting cult classic? A year or two? A decade or two? Maybe never? Some of the actors in the legendarily awful Troll 2 still leave it off their resumes, while others have come to embrace it alongside a fan base that revels in its ineptitude at packed screenings far and wide, and it's this curious development that makes the documentary Best Worst Movie such an effortlessly interesting watch.
After being forced in the late 1980s to threaten public urination on camera and fend off goblins with bologna sandwiches, director Michael Paul Stephenson has now come around to chronicle the initial embarrassment that the film brought to himself and others and the reluctance of them to embrace the film for all its rampant sloppiness -- a sloppiness yet to be admitted by Troll 2's writer and director (but we'll come back to them). Perhaps due to the risk of navel-gazing, Stephenson hangs the film not on himself, but his on-screen father, George Hardy, whose inherently dynamic personality and charm have garnered him fans regardless (even his own ex-wife vouches for him).
And so Stephenson and Hardy hear word of screenings in New York, Los Angeles, everywhere in between, and even a few places beyond where they find themselves heralded as heroes, asked to sign shirts and strike poses and recite lines on cue. It's not all butterflies and bliss -- a Dallas horror convention proves awkward, a London appearance even more so -- but it's unexpected all the same. Some members of the ensemble fess up a veritable case of insanity while they were on set, and then they strut out on stage to standing ovations. Some were simply too young at the time to know better than to trust the guiding broken English of Italian filmmakers Claudio Fragasso and Rossella Drudi, who themselves come to begrudgingly acknowledge the reverse glory of making one of the worst films ever when they thought (and still do) that a touching parable was the name of the game.
But what rises out of the risible is every bit as inexplicable as the production of the film itself, and from it all stems several portraits of lives changed at one time by a shameful experience and then yet again by this burgeoning sense of community that's as prime an example of how moviegoing brings people together as anything. Even if Stephenson had opted to ignore talking to those people within the movie itself, he'd have himself an awfully short documentary he captures the essence of people brought together by a common love for something, and the fact that Troll 2 is bad enough to garner such passion distinguishes itself from the ready-made cult-drawing likes of Repo! The Genetic Opera or the genuinely good likes of Donnie Darko. If you don't understand why the film plays like it does (and I couldn't see how), witnessing anything that draws this many people together in the name of simple enjoyment is to understand how easily we can take the gathering of an audience for granted.
In talking with the cast and crew, though, Best Worst Movie grows deeper as it narrows its focus. Shooting Troll 2 was an experience that dissuaded some from continuing their acting careers and others from even pursuing them. To see one older actor confess that, even without this movie, he's practically frittered his life away is as heartbreaking as it sounds, and to see another actress virtually lock herself in her own home elicits easy titters and uneasy concern alike. And then to see the director write off American actors and audiences alike for not seeing the true value of his film is to be grateful for the very concept of irony in its absence.
At one point, Stephenson reunites with Hardy and his on-screen mother to re-enact a singing scene from the film in her living room, and soon, he and the rest begin to crack up. She asks him why he's laughing, and he admits between chuckles that he never thought that he'd possibly be doing that with them ever again, and in that moment lies the value of the film. The odds of making a film quite like Troll 2 are fairly small, the odds of having people quite like Troll 2 are smaller yet, and the odds of having it bring people together in ways big and small, good and bad, are just enough to matter.