In show business, as in the rest of the world, success inevitably begets imitation. The Disaster Artist, director and star James Franco’s adaptation of Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s wonderfully gossipy memoir about the making of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, is one of the biggest sleeper hits/pop culture phenomenons of the past year — Franco’s subsequent misconduct allegations notwithstanding.
So it makes sense that studios would be eager to replicate The Disaster Artist’s Cinderella story, but the magic of Sestero’s memoir and Franco’s film adaptation of it lies in its uniqueness. How many actors began their careers collaborating with eccentric yet wildly charismatic outsiders, foreign in almost every sense, on singularly bizarre cult movies equally mocked and celebrated at the same time?
Well, we know of at least one other case, another fledgling actor who not only went through an uncannily similar ordeal on his first film, but who also made a terrific movie about those experiences. That man is Michael Paul Stephenson, who, as a naive child actor, was plucked from obscurity to be the juvenile lead in 1990’s Troll 2, and then directed a documentary about the making of that film 20 years later.
Troll 2 was so inexplicable, unforgettable, and bizarre that it was widely tagged with the “world’s worst film” label more than a dozen years before The Room came along. It’s a dubious distinction reserved for those films that are staggeringly unique in their awfulness — films that reflect the madness, myopia, and larger-than-life personalities of their creators all too vividly. Think Plan 9 From Outer Space. Think The Room. Think Troll 2.
The auteur of Troll 2 is Claudio Fragasso, a gloomy, intense horror director of some note in his native Italy who came to Utah to film a sequel to the 1986 cult movie Troll. Somewhat unexpectedly, Fragasso’s Troll 2 not only lacked any trolls whatsoever, but essentially shared no common ground with its predecessor, and that’s only where the myriad problems with the film began. While the first Troll wasn’t particularly good, it at least featured a cast lousy with big names, including Michael Moriarty, Sonny Bono, and a pre-Seinfeld Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Troll 2 didn’t even have that going for it.
Two decades after Troll 2 was unleashed upon the public, Stephenson parlayed his relatively brief acting career into a directing gig on 2009’s Best Worst Movie, an unexpectedly tender and moving documentary about the curious life and afterlife of Troll 2. Just as the relationship between Sestero and his oddball director forms the heart of The Disaster Artist, Stephenson’s relationship with his inscrutable, oddball director — as well as with George Hardy, the actor/dentist/All-American goober who played his dad — forms the heart of Best Worst Movie.
While Fragasso is revealed to be a brooding, dark cloud, Hardy is all sunlight. The latter is everyone’s corny dad, an irrepressible Alabama dentist, beloved in his community, who could not be more quintessentially American, in no small part because he dreamed of being an actor and making it in show business despite having no discernible talent in the field. He is, by every account, a great guy, but also a terrible actor whose moment of glory as a thespian doubled as a moment of profound shame and embarrassment — or at least it would have, if guys like Hardy were capable of embarrassment.
Stephenson, on the other hand, was aware enough to be profoundly ashamed and embarrassed by Troll 2, even though he was only a small child when he received a VHS copy of the film for Christmas. Despite having starred in it, he had never seen it, and gauging from his initial reaction, he might have preferred skipping it entirely.
But as Stephenson recounts here, something unusual happened over the decades: This terrible movie that brought him so much shame as a child had become a source of immense, ironic entertainment for a crowd of bad-movie aficionados. As with The Room, Troll 2 was enjoying a vigorous second life as a film so terrible that it’s accidentally exquisite.
Best Worst Movie captures the giddy sense of discovery that comes with finding something so brilliantly awful that it demands to be shared with the rest of the world, that surge of ironic joy that comes with finding a true trash treasure. The documentary is consequently about bad-movie culture and the way trash archivists repurpose the detritus of the past as the guilty pleasures of today, but it’s also about the complicated emotions that come with being part of something that generates enormous laughter and enjoyment by way of mockery and irony.
The cult of Troll 2 afforded folks like Stephenson and Hardy a unique form of fame. To much of the world, Troll 2 was a trifle that barely existed, but for cultists, it became something akin to a makeshift religion, its stars minor deities. These are people for whom seeing Hardy recite his famous line — “You can’t piss on hospitality!” — live and in person is a spiritual experience.
When people derive as much joy and pleasure from a film as they do from The Room or Troll 2, does it matter whether or not that pleasure is ironic? Does it matter that “fans” are laughing at scenes meant to convey serious ideas about how their creators see the world? Does it matter if they’re laughing at Wiseau’s pain and Fragasso’s anger and confusion? It doesn’t seem to matter to Hardy, who is just overjoyed to be entertaining people, and who comes to embrace his weird camp notoriety regardless of the context. The same is not necessarily true of Fragasso.
The film ended up being such a big cult phenomenon that decades later, its popularity brings Fragasso to Los Angeles to attend screenings, and to Utah to revisit some of the places where Troll 2 was shot. He’s first introduced halfway into Best Worst Movie.
“Troll 2 is a film that explores many serious and important issues, like eating, living, and dying,” he insists, and God bless him, he’s being achingly, poignantly sincere. He’s understandably nonplussed upon learning that all the critics hated his film, but that audiences have come to embrace it affectionately as the worst movie ever made.
Fragasso believed Troll 2 to be a serious parable about, among other things, the sanctity of the family unit in the face of outside threats. Reflecting on the explosive laughter that accompanies the screenings, he says, “People laugh at the funny things, but they also laugh at the less funny things. They don’t only laugh at what was meant to be laughed at. They also laugh at things that weren’t made to be laughed at.”
The simple truth is that Fragasso patently does not understand Troll 2’s second life. Part of this is attributable to language and culture, which proved troublesome even during the filming of the movie. But part of his confusion also stems from the fact that the Best Worst Movie subculture — one in which films and filmmakers are celebrated for being entertainingly terrible rather than, you know, “good” — is one from which he’s deeply disconnected by virtue of age and disposition. After all, in his mind, he’s a serious artist who made a serious film about Things That Matter. He initially dismisses his unusual notoriety with a wave of his hand, saying, “If the other say worst movie, it’s them problem, not my problem.” Moments later, he contextualizes it by arguing, “Being considered the worst movie is almost as much of a compliment as being the best.” He’s clearly bothered by the mocking response to his work, but he cannot deny the passion behind that response.
While The Room tries desperately to be an erotic thriller, it’s quite distinctly a Tommy Wiseau movie. It’s similarly inaccurate to describe Troll 2 as a mere horror sequel when it’s really more of a waking nightmare. There are lots of horror sequels out there, but there is no other movie like Troll 2, and that includes Troll and Troll 3. It’s a Claudio Fragasso movie, and that is something much bigger and more unintentionally ridiculous. His vision of America, which he rather strictly insisted upon enforcing, is so off base that the film betrays a gross misunderstanding not only of Americans and their culture, but of human beings as a species.
In the latter half of Best Worst Movie, the cast and crew revisit their storied history together and try to make sense of Troll 2, its enigmatic director, and their experiences making the cult classic. When the reunited cast begin to reenact scenes from the film, it’s funny, but there’s a surprising darkness and sadness lurking just under the surface. It’s most evident in Fragasso’s complicated emotions about his film and in the personal lives of the eccentric actors in the cast, which seem just as sad and strange and delicate as their appearances in Troll 2 might suggest, if not more so.
Robert Ormsby, who played Grandpa Seth in Troll 2, reflects with a chuckle, “Mostly I’ve wasted my life.” He speaks with a sense of resignation in his voice that indicates just how much he’s not joking. There’s a real melancholy here, as there is in everyday people chasing creative dreams they’ll either never realize, or only realize in an ironic form.
The same melancholy is present in The Disaster Artist, and while Best Worst Movie is already a great film about the making of Troll 2, there’s potential for a narrative version of the story to play as a terrific crowd-pleaser, like Franco’s film. Being that Stephenson not only helmed Best Worst Movie, but lived it, he’d be a great choice to direct, particularly since he just made his scripted debut last year with Netflix’s fascinating, Charlie Kaufman-esque dark comedy Girlfriend’s Day, which was written by Bob Odenkirk.
Hardy would be an Oscar role to be sure, as would Margo Prey, who played the mother of Stephenson’s character, and either Will Ferrell or Sam Rockwell could capture Hardy’s infectious enthusiasm and affability. But I’d like to think that if a narrative version of Best Worst Movie ever gets made, they’ll at least give the real George Hardy a cameo. A talent that unique cannot be denied, even after all these years squandering his movie-star magnetism on the stable but less glamorous, less exciting field of dentistry.
Original Certification: Fresh
Tomatometer: 95 percent (Certified Fresh)
Nathan Rabin is a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.
Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin