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Indie Focus: Films so bad, they're hits

The new documentary 'Best Worst Movie' chronicles the unlikely phenomenon of stinker as cult favorite. It follows the trajectory of 'Troll 2.'

May 23, 2010|By Mark Olsen, Special to the Los Angeles Times

In a recent New Yorker cartoon, a couple exit a movie theater and the man says to the woman: "I can't decide if that was bad in a good way, good in a good way, good in a bad way, or bad in a bad way." It's a fitting question for fans of an unlikely sub-genre that's recently risen to prominence: the "so bad it's good" movie, a cinematic strain that's drawing ever-growing groups of people to see films both old and relatively new that are, by any conventional standard, of very dubious virtue.

"Best Worst Movie," which opened Friday in Los Angeles, is a documentary that chronicles the phenomenon via the tale of "Troll 2," a horror film made in 1989 and initially released only on home video. Shot in Utah by Italian filmmaker Claudio Fragasso, "Troll 2" is not actually a sequel, it has a real-life dentist as its lead actor, and it features no trolls, only goblins. Despite (or because of) its apparent flaws, the film has in the last few years drawn a dedicated fan base to a series of packed screenings across the country

"It's like a big catharsis for me," said Michael Paul Stephenson, director of "Best Worst Movie," and who, as a young actor, was one of the stars of "Troll 2." "You have to understand, when I made this film, I was 10. I took every bit of it personally, that failure. It just never went away, and then five years ago it was the weirdest thing, I started getting these messages from kids on MySpace."

"Best Worst Movie" follows screenings from New York to Austin, Texas, to Los Angeles and elsewhere where fans of "Troll 2" celebrate their affection — both ironic and earnest — for the film. At the same time, the film catches up with many of the behind-the-scenes personalities from "Troll 2" — including dentist Dr. George Hardy and director Fragasso — to discover what has happened since they made the picture that for a time inhabited the absolute bottom of the rankings on the Internet Movie Database.

The trajectory of "Troll 2" is similar to that of "The Room" and "Birdemic: Shock and Terror," two other films that have found an audience even as they defy all conventional rules of quality and basic filmmaking technique. The 2003 drama-gone-wrong "The Room" has played for years at midnight screenings in Los Angeles, slowly garnering a rabid fan following. The film recently played a sold-out show at New York City's 1,200-seat Ziegfeld Theater.

"Birdemic," an ecological horror film in which birds attack humans, played its first paying public shows in sold-out screenings this year in Los Angeles, where audiences thrilled to its amateurish special effects. The film is now touring the country, and some audience members are already arriving with their own coat hangers, ready to imitate one of "Birdemic's" more outrageous scenes.

"I think the similarity between 'The Room' and 'Birdemic' and 'Troll 2' is that they were all people trying to make great movies who failed miserably," said Stephenson. "In our case, we thought we were making a great horror movie, and the result was far from it. It fails in every way, but it has this genuine quality that I think makes it enjoyable."

At a time when independent films with high-class pedigrees of talent and prestige struggle at the box office, there is something even more remarkable about these particular movies finding an audience. Often relying on one-off showings or short multi-night runs rather than conventional weeklong bookings, the people behind these films manage to turn every screening into an event. Who would have thought all those years ago that the audience participation of the campy "Rocky Horror Picture Show" was in fact pioneering an alternative model for theatrical exhibition?

"This whole thing is being branded as something that's more of an experience," said Evan Husney, director of marketing and public relations at cult label Severin Films, making its first foray into theatrical distribution with "Birdemic." "Sure, the film is readily available for anybody to download on the Internet illegally, but there are still people who want to go out there and have the experience of seeing the film with a crowded audience."

Of course, for the filmmakers involved, none of whom set out to make a bad movie, let alone a movie beloved for being bad, there has been recalibration of their own expectations.

"I was surprised and kind of shocked by it, but I'm happy at the same time," said "Birdemic" director James Nguyen. "'Birdemic: Shock and Terror' was supposed to be a serious romantic thriller."

Regardless of the filmmakers' intentions, as the climactic montage of "Best Worst Movie" makes clear, there is simply no arguing with the smiles and laughter of audiences watching these new cult hits. Whether motivated by genuine affection, some sort of post-comment-section irony or a combination of the two, people do respond.

The strange case of "Troll 2," as chronicled in "Best Worst Movie," gives rise to an intriguing empirical quandary — when a film famed for being the worst movie ever begins to garner popularity for that distinction, does it remain the worst movie ever, even when that is the catalyst for it to become so beloved?

"I can't honestly say I think 'Troll 2' is a bad film," said Stephenson. "I'll be the first to admit that on every level, directing, writing, acting, it fails horribly. But it has not failed to leave an impression or to entertain. And so many movies are forgettable.

"In every single one of these 'Troll 2' screenings, everyone is there celebrating a bad movie, but the experience is anything but bad."

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