Cream of the crap

James Oliver

James Oliver on the movies that are so ‘bad’ they're brilliant

15 November 2018 14:19

If you are not yet familiar with Troll 2, then you’re in for a treat. Made in 1990 by director Claudio Fragasso, it has just been released in the UK on Blu Ray, by Eureka, one of the world’s foremost, and most prestigious, purveyors of such things. They’ve given it the right royal treatment, bracketing it with supplementary films (including an excellent feature-length documentary) and more.

There may be eyebrows raised that such care – nay, love – has been lavished on a sequel to a film that few have heard of and fewer have seen. The answer is to be found in the title of the aforementioned documentary, that tackles the phenomenon that is Troll 2: Best Worst Movie (Best Worst Movie [Michael Stephenson, 2009]). For many fans, that’s exactly what Troll 2 is, the ne plus ultra of bad filmmaking.

Certainly, there’s no denying that Troll 2 is… quite something. Despite the title, it has nothing to do with the original Troll (John Carl Buechler, 1986). In fact, the monsters in Troll 2 aren’t even trolls. They’re goblins, but that was close enough for the producers who decided to re-title their work (from ‘Goblins’) to cash in on a proven hit (one that’s also included in the Eureka package. It’s pretty good. It features a character called ‘Harry Potter’).

You will not be surprised to discover that Troll 2 went straight to video, but anyone renting this baby would have been in for a shock. The acting is literally amateurish – its leading man was a dentist before he made this and was a dentist again afterwards too. Moreover, it has the production value of a reasonably well-appointed school play.

‘Troll 2’ (Claudio Fragasso, 1990)

The makers of Troll 2 were Italian and their script was translated into English for the American shoot. That accounts for the bad dialogue. But the storyline would be eccentric in any tongue: it’s set in the small town of ‘Niblog’, where a family of city folks have come for a relaxing vacation, little realising that it’s full of goblins! Who plan to eat them! So, it’s just as well that the ghost of a recently deceased grandfather is on hand, Obi-wan Kenobi style, to give advice to the child hero who saves the day. This he does with the assistance of a sandwich! Indeed.

All this would have been forgotten but for the internet, where those few souls who saw it gathered first to reminisce, then to evangelise. (This might be the most interesting part of the story, a rare example of a genuine cult movie – one championed by an ever-expanding band of acolytes.) Thanks to them, Troll 2 is now a true classic of bad movies. But is this fair? While it is indeed a long way from being ‘good’, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s ‘bad’.

The same applies to the other great genuine cult movie of our times, The Room (Tommy Wisseau, 2003). The Room is better known since it inspired last year’s award-winning motion picture The Disaster Artist (James Franco, 2017), concerning the making of this unique project, and the man who made it, writer, producer, director and – fatally – star of The Room, Tommy Wisseau.

It seems that Wisseau intended The Room as an adult relationship drama. He fell somewhat short of that; the results alternate between the inane, the bewildering and the hilarious, often in the same scene. Often in the same thirty seconds, in fact. In later years, Wisseau has claimed he meant the film as a comedy, but that’s not going to fly – nothing could ever be as intentionally funny as this.

That might sound a bit too personal, a bit too malicious: it’s hardly kind to mock someone when they fall on their face. But the sheer hubris of The Room renders such objections redundant. You don’t need his co-star to confirm that, yes, Tommy was drawing on his own recently ended relationship in the central drama of a decent, kindly man betrayed by his cheating bitch fiancé: the self-pity verges on auto-martyrdom here, culminating in a scene that might have come from a teenager’s tantrum.

‘The Room’ (Tommy Wisseau, 2003)

Freed from the burden of feeling sorry for Tommy – oddly, the very reaction he seems to have sought to engender – you can enjoy the riches laid before you: characters who seem like alien invaders impersonating human beings, the regular soft-core sex scenes (don’t forget your rose petals, gents!) and, above all, Wisseau’s performance in a role that would have taxed even a more naturally gifted actor. But again, the question must be asked: despite everything, is The Room actually a ‘bad’ film?

Before answering, there’s one more title to consider. Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Michael Schultz, 1978) doesn’t often figure in the lists of worst movies ever. Which is odd, as it’s so thoroughly deserving.

This is a film brought to you by the letters W, T and F. It derives, as you will have guessed, from The Beatles, but the fab four themselves are absent. In their stead, we have three Bee-Gees – the film was made in their disco-era pomp – and, er, Peter Frampton.

Anyway, the three Bee-Gees (and Peter Frampton) are small town musicians lured to Los Angeles by a venal record company, but their mission to bring peace and love to the world with their music (or rather, The Beatle’s music) is opposed by the villainous Mean Mr. Mustard, played – but of course – by Frankie Howerd (seriously, titter ye not). It would seem they were making it up as they went along, and under the influence of premium grade pharmaceuticals to boot.

To go further requires the abandonment of strict objectivity to get personal. Because there I was, watching this hot mess with ever increasing amazement when I realised – I am actually enjoying this. Possibly not for the reasons that the makers might have intended, but enjoying it nonetheless, for its drug-addled indulgence, the way the plot lurched forward in ever more unpredictable ways and, to be fair, the pretty good musical interludes. If nothing else, it wasn’t boring.

As with Troll 2 and The Room, it’s impossible to be angry at a film that gives so much to smile about. That’s why it’s worth asking why they are considered ‘bad’ films. Silly? Yes. Laughable? It cannot be denied. But only a value scale in need of serious recalibration could describe work that gets the endorphins flowing so freely as ‘bad’.

‘Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band’ (Michael Schultz, 1978)

Or so you might have thought. However, were you to surf on over to the repository of reviews that is Rotten Tomatoes, you would find them buried under some of the worst notices on the site, (Troll 2 has a 6% favourable rating, The Room 26% and Sergeant Pepper 15%). Green splats even accompany even those write-ups which acknowledge that they are quite harmless, and not un-entertaining.

This isn’t, it should be noted, merely a matter of taste. Doubtless there are some stern viewers who found the above movies boring or annoying, the two criteria that (for me) define bad films. If that’s their honest reaction, then they must say so. But to be able to admit the amusement value inherent in The Room and still label it a ‘bad’ film smacks of timidity.

Ditto the trend for ‘guilty pleasures’; guilt suggests a belief that ‘good’ films ought to be worthy or at least possessed of a stolid, tasteful respectability; the sort of films, in other words, that get nominated for awards at the end of the year and forgotten six months later.

(Speaking of awards, beware too the ‘Golden Raspberries’, presented in the days before Oscar announces his pick. More even than the Academy Awards that they spoof, they re-enforce the notion that there’s a ‘right’ way to enjoy films. As a rule, the titles they (dis)honour are those that offend risk-averse middlebrow taste, most famously Showgirls (Paul Verheoven, 1995) and, latterly, Mother! (Darren Aronofsky, 2017). It takes some doing to make the Oscars look adventurous, but the Golden Raspberries manage it.)

Obviously, there are limits. If films can be compared to food then the likes of Troll 2 are the gooiest, sickliest desserts on the sweet trolley, all topped off with cream: you don’t need lectures about why it’s a bad idea to include them as part of your staple diet, but nor should you apologise for the occasional indulgence, especially if you’re eating flavoursome dishes from around the world (and – let’s stress this – not just takeaways from Hollywood).

Speaking only for myself, I make no claims for Troll 2 or The Room other that I enjoyed them: they don’t posture and preen, and nor do they think themselves more intelligent than they are. There are many, more acclaimed films of recent years that bored or annoyed me far more than anything on display here. Put it this way: I am looking forward to a return trip to Niblog rather more than sitting through some of next year’s Best Picture nominees.