The Blair Witch Project” may have gotten there first, but Andre Ovredal’s “The Troll Hunter” embellishes the candid, caught-on-video format to thrilling effect with ample footage of its mythological monsters. Presented as the rough-cut edit of material retrieved from a missing student camera crew, this high-concept mock-doc shadows three likable young people as they stumble upon Norway’s biggest conspiracy: a government-run effort to keep the country’s troll population under wraps. Already a big hit back home, this enormously entertaining chiller could be a major breakout for Magnet, which poached “Hunter” after a secret work-in-progress screening at Fantastic Fest last fall.
Whereas America has the likes of Bigfoot and Area 51 to exploit, Ovredal has turned to Scandinavian legend for inspiration, suggesting there may be some truth to the region’s rich troll lore by inventing an elaborate scientific context in which these menacing, Godzilla-sized monsters could conceivably exist.
In true “Blair Witch” fashion, “The Troll Hunter” opens with a series of title cards claiming that experts have analyzed and authenticated the footage we are about to see, which means things are unlikely to turn out well for the three Volda College kids shown making their first documentary. But unlike that film, “The Troll Hunter” emphasizes excitement and humor over horror. The central crew consists of eager host Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud), female sound recordist Johanna (Johanna Morck) and easily spooked cameraman Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen, offscreen for most of the movie), who clumsily go about their investigation the way the Scooby-Doo crew might.
Their project begins innocuously enough, as the three poke their noses into a local poaching scandal, but quickly points to a mysterious outsider, Hans (Otto Jespersen), who might be responsible for a rash of unlawful bear shootings. After confronting him twice, they decide to follow the secretive stranger to a remote wooded area where, within 15 minutes of the film starting, they encounter their first troll, a rabid Ringlefinch — just one of four species revealed over the course of their adventure.
Although the film will eventually give us generous opportunity to examine each of the different types, this first sequence is handled more obliquely. The camera captures little more than a blur of trees and panic, leaving deft sleight-of-hand and robust sound design to suggest something huge, heavy and extremely dangerous in pursuit.
It turns out Hans is something of a modern-day Van Helsing, employed by Norway’s highly classified Troll Security Service to keep the unwieldy troll populations in check. Grumbling about lousy working conditions and lack of overtime, the troll hunter agrees to let the still-skeptical young crew document his unusual profession. Something is upsetting the creatures’ ecosystem, and the kids are fortunate enough to be along for the investigation — or maybe not so fortunate, given the perilous nature of Hans’ work.
While “The Troll Hunter” isn’t necessarily scary outright, what makes the project so effective is the way it immerses us in a situation where we must figure out the rules alongside the characters as they go. The rough-cut premise allows Ovredal to abruptly splice bits of handheld footage together, orchestrating a sense of refreshing irreverence and jumpy anticipation without calling too much attention to the presence of a director. The camerawork feels intuitive, taking time during the more intense moments to register the protags’ reactions, while also straining to get the best glimpse of the trolls themselves — and this is where the film distinguishes itself from “Cloverfield,” “REC” or any number of similar stunts, which subscribe to the “Jaws” hide-the-shark school of suspense.
It helps to tease, as “The Troll Hunter” does, but auds ultimately want to see the monster. Through a series of elaborate setpieces, Ovredal gives us the goods, weaving a backstory that adds a tragic dimension to the trolls’ dwindling numbers. Reminiscent of the hairy beasts in “Where the Wild Things Are,” the trolls’ creature design is deliberately ugly, a shade comical and manageable enough to awe younger auds without provoking nightmares. But it’s the rafter-rocking sound work that really makes this experience feel both plausible and on par with a polished Hollywood production. You know the illusion is working when the characters walk into a big empty cave midway through the movie and the audience holds its collective breath.