Michael Paul Stephenson’s enjoyable, sometimes fascinating, “Best Worst Movie” chronicles the making of the horror cheapie “Troll 2,” and how, in the twenty years since its critically panned release, this so-called “worst movie ever made” has spawned a significant worldwide cult. Stephenson can claim personal authority with his subject since, as an eight-year-old, he was himself part of “Troll 2’s” cast. By and large, though, he keeps his own opinions under wraps, and lets his documentary’s motley assortment of characters tell the story. Front and center among them is Dr. George Hardy, now a successful dentist in small-town Alabama, who played the lead in “Troll 2.”
“Best Worst Movie,” in a sense, is Hardy’s story as Stephenson’s cameras follow him through a fling with a kind of revisionist stardom thanks to “Troll 2’s” growing internet fan base. We watch as Hardy, a cheerful and unassuming gentleman, reacts with puzzlement then delight at the wild reception he receives nationwide while making appearances at “Troll 2” revival screenings. These opening sections of “Best Worst Movie” feel weakest because they lack tension between the subject and his environment — the stuff of great drama – as Hardy and his movie are met with unbridled adoration by one and all. But, then, gradually, a sense of reality creeps in, and heartbreak as it dawns on Hardy that, beyond a very narrow segment of film buffs, he and his movie are about as well regarded as last week’s leftover pizza. Those moments of realization ground Stephenson’s documentary with a humility and wisdom that give it a resonant, poignant quality, however bittersweet.
Stephenson explores intriguing themes about the nature of bad cinema, about notions of cult celebrity, and why legions of enthusiasts rally around certain admittedly awful movies – of which “Troll 2” seems to be the reigning king. “Best Worst Movie” succeeds in much the same way as recent documentaries like “King of Kong” and “Anvil! The Story of Anvil”; they all reveal and humanize little seen communities in our shared culture, and offer deeply felt answers to pressing questions about fame, success, and finding purpose in life.
For Hardy, the journey to cult celebrity and back offers a hard-won realization that stardom, for all its tempting thrills, can be equally demoralizing. For others in “Troll 2’s” cast and crew, the cult status with which they’ve been conferred is met with various and surprising reactions, from actress Connie Young’s bemused embarrassment to Italian director Claudio Fragasso’s intensely conflicted feelings over being regarded as the maestro of bad cinema. But where Stephenson’s film really plumbs its darkest, richest depths is in the portraits of co-stars Robert Ormsby, Don Packard, and Margo Prey – all of whom seem to be living on the margins, whether retired, withdrawn or recovering from illness. The bare honesty of their personalities speaks both to their courage and to their willingness to share their most private insecurities and regrets.
“Troll 2” is a terrible movie, but it’s the best kind of terrible – unselfconscious and made with utter sincerity, as if the fate of humanity depended on it. Listening to the testimony of the movie’s true believers, from film critics to cult-movie fans, I began to wonder if, on the scale of good to bad – from, say, “Citizen Kane” on one end and “Troll 2” on the other – art from either extremes can and must be appreciated in their own, albeit polar opposite, ways. Whether a brightly radiant star or a powerful, all-consuming black hole, both elicit our awe and our admiration, do they not? Perhaps the anti-masterpiece deserves a place in our hearts as much as the masterpiece.
Directed by: Michael Paul Stephenson
Written by: Michael Paul Stephenson
Cast: Michael Paul Stephenson, George Hardy, Darren Ewing, Jason Steadman, Jason Wright, Robert Ormsby, Don Packard, Margo Prey, Connie Young, Claudio Fragasso