Review: Best Worst Movie (2009)

4


Cast: George Hardy, Michael Stephenson, Darren Ewing
Director: Michael Stephenson
Country: USA
Genre: Documentary
Official Trailer: Here


“How does it feel that you are the director of the worst movie ever made?” asks Michael Stephenson of Troll 2 director Claudio Fragasso at one point in Best Worst Movie, Stephenson’s remarkable documentary on the film’s thriving cult adoration as a work so phenomenally awful that it somehow manages to be a magnificent masterpiece of cinematic entertainment. Stephenson himself starred in the film as its child protagonist Joshua; his lingering shame was the motivation to create a record of how it feels to be part of something generally recognised as a definitive low point in the history of an artistic medium. Yet, like the almost inexplicable transcendence of its subject matter, Best Worst Movie evolves beyond its own control as it continues, becoming something altogether different than just a reflection of Troll 2’s following; both films become by their conclusions stupefying viewing experiences, challenging conceptions of where bad ends and good begins.

…Stephenson’s remarkable documentary on the film’s thriving cult adoration as a work so phenomenally awful that it somehow manages to be a magnificent masterpiece of cinematic entertainment.

Best Worst Movie takes as its starting point the life of George Hardy, whose turn as Stephenson’s character’s father is one of Troll 2’s most awful aspects, as Hardy himself is quick to admit. He operates a dental practice in Alabama, where his infectious bonhomie has made him one of his community’s most well-known and well-liked personalities. Much like for Stephenson, Hardy’s being cast in the film was the ill-fated fulfilment of a dream of movie stardom. He eventually encountered it on VHS some years later, but remained unaware of its growing reputation as a cult classic. Best Worst Movie is, in essence, his story, tracking his discovery of the film’s legacy and the sense of pride that comes with being a part of film history, whatever the reasons. Attending one of the film’s many regular screenings across the country, he is shocked to find the immense culture all of its own it has amassed and the devout, even obsessed, fan base who look beyond its considerable flaws to the unifying wonders of its entertainment value.

Interspersed with clips of some of Troll 2’s most memorably inane moments, Best Worst Movie catches up with most of the actors and a number of the crew 18 years later, almost all of them aware in some respect of the infamy their output went on to accrue. Co-star Connie Young, herself still a working actress, struggles regularly with whether or not to include it on her resume; she is rightly apprehensive that such a credit will instantly destroy any prospective hopes of employment. Robert Ormsby, who played Grandpa Seth, reflects on a life spent in the movie business, and laments what little he has to show for it. His is a bittersweet story, but one of the clearest manifestations of what Stephenson is trying to say about Troll 2: that it may be a qualified candidate for the worst use of celluloid in the history of cinema, but to both its fans and its cast/crew it is an important piece of life, functioning beyond the role of a simple movie and touching something deeper. Ormsby may leave this earth with nobody to carry on his family name, but he will remain immortalised in the minds of Troll 2’s legions upon legions of fans long after he is gone, his legacy secured in the delighted laughs of all who see his film. Best Worst Movie functions as an emotionally charged look at the lives of people like Hardy and Ormsby, ordinary Americans whose lives are changed by being part of something much bigger than they ever expected. It’s a warming tale to see, particularly so in Hardy’s case as he finds favour with a hitherto unknown army of admirers, bringing a surprising emotional aspect to the film as he finds his dream career now, in some small way, has been realised.

Best Worst Movie is a film far more moving than one would expect, the genuineness of Hardy and his contagious delight at discovering this weird world of cult fandom making it far more a human drama than a simple catalogue of its subject’s afterlife. At the same time, to its great credit, it functions as a wickedly funny reliving of Troll 2’s nonsensicality that almost matches the original in the sheer quantity of laughs it elicits (fortunately, unlike Troll 2, it means to provide them). The point at which Fragasso enters the fray marks the beginning of an unendingly hilarious succession of scenes wherein the director and his writer fervently argue their film as a masterpiece, and re-enact its scenes with the cast. Seeing the conditions under which Troll 2 was filmed does much to explain its “successful failure”, as it were, Fragasso’s sternness even in these playful recreations bizarre and brilliant to behold. Troll 2 earns its title of “best” worst movie not because of some hopeless misunderstanding of cinematic storytelling—as one interviewee remarks, it was clearly created by people who knew how to construct a film—but simply its dreadfully ridiculous story was given life by people who really believed they were making something great. Everybody garners enjoyment from awful films, but the best of these are those made with the intention of brilliance, those crafted by people who, for one reason or another, had genuine faith in something so so hopeless.

Everybody garners enjoyment from awful films, but the best of these are those made with the intention of brilliance, those crafted by people who, for one reason or another, had genuine faith in something so so hopeless.

The point at which Best Worst Movie really becomes something special is the point at which its study of Troll 2 expands beyond mere discussion and retrospective evaluation. At some level beyond its comedic glance at this film’s unexpected lease of life, Best Worst Movie is home to a dizzyingly complex metatextual examination of not just its subject, but its own role as a cinematic document. What boggles the brain and makes it so confounding and perplexing, though, is that it’s all but impossible to tell whether or not this is intentional. Though we regard documentary as a medium of objective truths and realities, every shot is a conscious choice on the part of a subjective human mind, each scene a favouring of one aspect of the real world over all others. Few documentaries are free of some degree of deceit; it is not always possible to have a camera capture each moment of the truth that we wish to present. As it continues, Best Worst Movie begins to show more of these moments of interpretational abstraction, certain little signs that belie the construction going into every scene. When Stephenson and Hardy visit Margo Prey, the actress who played their mother and wife respectively, it is a disturbing scene that shows her as a quintessential crazy cat lady. But minute aspects in camera angles odd for a real-time documentary moment couple with the stereotypical extent of her character to suggest a certain manipulation of our viewing experience on Stephenson’s part which alerts out attention, and changes our perception of everything which follows it.

Suddenly, every scene we see begs the question: just how real is this? To what extent is this an accurate representation of the true story? Is Stephenson presenting us with the real details behind Troll 2’s cast and crew’s reaction to its popularity, or is he tilting it to serve dramatic and comedic purposes? I tend to lean more toward the latter, though with full belief that in doing so, he is deliberately invoking questions as to the relation between intent and outcome. Troll 2’s badness is so enjoyable because it was intended to be a good film of interesting ideas well expressed by its performances and its direction. Best Worst Movie begins to replicate this in its own form, drawing our attention to the rationales behind its creation and the fine line it walks between exposition and exploitation. It mirrors its subject, calling us to notice that the finished film is not just a product of the aspects of its production, but also of the aims—be they satisfied or not—of its makers and the analyses—be they accurate or not—of its audience. Whether such a layered textual incisiveness is the direct intention of Stephenson, an unknowing happenstance of pure chance, or the misguided take of my own subjective critical mind becomes, by the documentary’s conclusion, entirely irrelevant. Film is what we make of it, and its value to us is found not in quantifiable cinematic virtue, but in what we take from it as impressionable human witnesses. In the earnest of its creators and the sheer value of its unintentional comic entertainment, Troll 2 transcends conceptions of “good movies” and “bad movies”. In attempting to capture this strange qualitative abstraction, Best Worst Movie achieves an ethereal otherness all of its own, revealing the inestimable importance of subjective perception and the ultimate irrelevance of everything but our own interpretation of what we see on the screen. It may be ingeniously intentional or entirely accidental, but it’s unavoidably there, and it’s unspeakably brilliant.

[notification type=”star”]91/100 ~ AMAZING. In attempting to capture the strange qualitative abstraction of Troll 2, Best Worst Movie achieves an ethereal otherness all of its own, revealing the inestimable importance of subjective perception and the ultimate irrelevance of everything but our own interpretation of what we see on the screen.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.