George Hardy’s reaction when he first saw himself onscreen? “This is bad … this is really, really bad … ” Not just bad: The worst — at least according to an entire cult following, plus “Best Worst Movie,” Michael Paul Stephenson’s strangely moving, insightful and entertaining docu about the wildly incompetent “Troll 2,” the people who made it, the phenomenon of bad-movie fandom and the irresistible allure of celebrity. Theatrical seems a longshot, but widespread festival play, broadcast and ancillary release could make the pic even more of an insider fave than its subject.
Helmer Stephenson was a kid actor when he appeared in “Troll 2,” but he more or less turns the movie over to small-town Alabama dentist Hardy, who in 1989 was living in Salt Lake City. There, on a whim, Hardy answered a casting call for a low-budget horror movie being shot locally by Italian director Claudio Fragasso. He made the movie. And then forgot about it. As, apparently, did most of the people in the cast.
What they later discovered — some to their delight, others to their horror — was that the resulting “Troll 2” (originally titled “Goblin” and with no relation to “Troll”) had become a fanboy favorite and the lowest-ranking movie ever on Rotten Tomatoes’ T-Meter (a zero); its dialogue had evolved into cult slogans, and Hardy and the rest of the cast were now camp celebrities. When your own mother admits she walked out of your movie halfway through — as Hardy’s admits she did — you know you’ve got something unholy on your hands. Somehow, Fragasso’s weird, plotless, Ed Wood-ish exercise in ineptitude had touched the soul of Nerd Nation.
At the outset, “Best Worst Movie” reps a weird testimonial to Hardy, who really does come across as the world’s nicest guy; even his ex-wife thinks he’s great. This sets him up as a prime example of what can happen to a person when fame — even the odd, fringy kind accorded by “Troll 2” — takes over your life. Hardy begins attending a series of screenings held in different cities; he’s treated like Elvis; he eats it up. A charming, guileless kind of guy, Hardy never loses his humanity, but he does start to think a career in acting might have been a good idea — at which point, the story of “Troll 2” becomes, for the first time ever, truly terrifying.
“Best Worst Movie” is set up as a triptych of sorts, a three-part saga of cinematic incompetence. Unfortunately, it’s the first part that’s the most fun, with people loving Hardy and Hardy loving the attention. But then Fragasso comes to town, expecting redemption and validation, and reality, such as it is, along with artistic failure and trampled ego, takes the happy air out of the party balloon.
In what passes as part three, Hardy and fellow “Troll 2” cast member Darren Ewing visit memorabilia shows, where “Troll 2” is only a tiny blip on the “Star Trek”/”Star Wars”/”Nightmare on Elm Street” radar screen, and the two start to get depressed by the small turnout. Making matters worse, Hardy is repulsed by the parade of human oddities in each convention hall. “Only about 5% of the people here floss their teeth on a daily basis,” he notes.
But “Best Worst Movie” is anything but a downer. It’s consistently funny and smart about celebrity, vanity and bad movies — and what makes them lovable. (There’s no cynicism in “Troll 2,” says writer M.J. Simpson; the movie “seems to have been made by people who knew how to make a film, but had suffered quite a heavy blow to the head.”) “Best Worst Movie” also stars nice people, like Hardy, Ewing and Connie Young, who played Hardy’s daughter, and to this day has never listed “Troll 2” on her resume.
Production values are better than “Troll 2.”