Thursday, February 28, 2013

Troll (1986)

I first saw Troll in the mid '80s, when we were shown it as a treat at school. Other treat videos that same teacher showed us included Maro Camus's spaghetti western The Revenge of Trinity, Rumble Fish, The Terminator, and the Jackie Chan/Sammo Hung/Yuen Biao kung fu comedy Wheels On Meals. In hindsight, that year was probably a big influence on my subsequent filmgoing habits.

Troll certainly made an impression on me. Although it was never actually scary, it had an unsettling vibe to the whole thing. Although it's clearly intended to be a kid's movie, it starts off by seemingly doing away with a little girl so that a hideous shape-changing troll can take her place. It then deals with most of the supporting cast in surreal but fairly ruthless manner, all the while maintaining a genuine weirdness. It's the movie where Sonny Bono mutates, swells and splits apart, finally exploding into a mess of fairy-land foliage and bizarre goblin creatures, all of whom start to sing.

The movie is told from the point of view of the Potter family (and yes, both the father and the son are called Harry). It's the daughter in this family, Wendy, who is replaced by a troll. Her parents, Harry Potter Sr. (Michael Moriarty) and Anne Potter (Shelley Hack), are only slightly bemused when their daughter starts foaming at the mouth, growling unnervingly, and packing away burger after burger before trying to take a bite out of her dad. "It's the stress of the mood," they shrug, and keep bumbling through their day. Only Harry Potter Jr. seems to notice that things have started to turn completely fucking nuts.

Fortunately for Harry Jr., one of the other tenants is a witch called Eunice St. Clair (June Lockhart) who is able to explain everything. The troll, it seems, used to be her boyfriend, a wizard called Torok. (Amusingly, in the portrait of the pair of them Eunice has hanging on the wall, Torok is painted to resemble director John Carl Buechler.) Torok had started a war in an attempt to unite the human world and the fairy world, and was turned into a troll as punishment; now he is trying to pick up where he left off. Eunice has been standing guard for centuries, waiting for him to make his move.

Meanwhile Wendy is going from apartment to apartment, turning all of the the tenants into mythical creatures and fairyland foliage. Interestingly, although all of the men turn into ugly little rubber creatures, the only woman (Julia Louis Dreyfus) is turned into a group of good looking and mostly naked young women. Hm. In the midst of all this, Harry Sr. plays air guitar while blaring his record collection and Anne just kind of wanders around obliviously.

Some parts of Troll are pretty hard to take. A scene towards the start, where most of the supporting cast is introduced during a fire alarm, is particularly offputting. On top of the squalling alarm, everybody's performances are turned up to 11 and there's a lt of frantic running around and screaming. The moment the alarm was turned off I literally breathed a sigh of relief and the movie instantly became a lot more likeable. By the time we got to the first transformation scene, I was completely sold.

The cast is a mixed bag. Moriarty, who at around this time was giving eccentric and nuanced method performances in Larry Cohen movies, plays Harry Sr. as a grinning dope, and Hack is at her most vacant. Little Jenny Beck looks like she's having a ball playing Torok-as-Wendy; she had recently played Elizabeth, the human/alien hybrid, in V. June Lockhart is funny as Eunice, and there's a cameo by her daughter Anne Lockhart. Noah Hathaway, as Harry Jr., is a bit wooden and is given a few too many reaction close-ups. By far the best actor in the movie is Phil Fondacaro as Malcolm, a university professor who Torok/Wendy befriends. Fondacaro also plays Torok the troll, whose voice is provided by prolific voice artist Frank Welker (Gremlins, Scooby Doo).

The special effects  are mostly pretty good, in a low-budget kind of way. Director John Carl Buechler was also the main makeup effects guy for Empire, and he showcases his own work extensively here. Torok is the besy creation here; he's quite convincing and his face is mobile and expressive. Most of the other creatures are simpler puppets, but they share a rather charning ugly cuteness. Sonny Bono's transformation scene is a real highlight; I remember that getting a lot of laughs, and other vocal noises, when we watched it at school about quarter of a century ago.

Troll was mostly filmed on a sound stage in Italy with a mostly Italian crew, including cinematographer Romano Albani, who had previously worked with Dario Argento on Inferno and Phenomena. It has some of that distinctive Italian horror flavour, and not just because the whole movie is looped in typical Italian tradition. This is because it is produced by the father & son team of Albert Band and Charles Band, for their notorious Empire Productions, who were always fond of filming in Europe if they could get it for cheap. I guess you could think of Troll as one of the Bands' pioneering efforts, along with the previous year's Ghoulies and the next year's Dolls (from Troll scribe Ed Naha). Charles Band's next company, Full Moon, would be notorious for its endless recycling of the "small things on the rampage" idea.

The apartment sets for Troll were reused almost immediately for another Empire picture, David Schmoeller's Crawlspace, which also shares a number of few members but otherwise has nothing in common with Troll except in being deeply weird. Another Empire reference is that there is are posters for Parasite 3D and Dungeonmaster poster on the son's wall. Dungeonmaster is a weird, disjointed movie in its own right, not helped by the fact that it has seven directors, including Buechler's debut.

Re-experiencing the weirdness of Troll was oddly satisfying. I am tempted to follow it up by revisiting another movie John Carl Buechler directed for Empire, the similarly bizarre but much gorier Cellar Dweller. Until next time...