Best Worst Movie is the populist doc to beat this year, following in the footsteps of last year’s Anvil! The Story of Anvil and summarily outdistancing that self-serving and unchallenging crowd-pleaser. It doesn’t hurt that Best Worst Movie was made two decades after Troll 2, one of the worst Z-grade horror movies you’re likely to see. That amount of time has given actor-turned-director Michael Stephenson and his fellow cast members the luxury of hindsight and made their post-production story all the more funny, tender, and engaging for it.
Best Worst Movie is about what happened when the cast of Claudio Fragasso’s notoriously inept fantasy-cum-kiddie flick discover that their movie has been embraced by a thriving cult audience and celebrated as an experience unto itself. During Best Worst Movie‘s first half, viewers are allowed to bask in the warm glow of diehard fans’ enjoyment of Troll 2. Even without having seen Fragasso’s abomination or its predecessor (Troll 2 has nothing narratively or even thematically to do with Troll), viewers of Best Worst Movie can get vicariously high off of the ebullience of the crazies Stephenson observes eagerly queuing up to see grandpa Seth dispense some more advice from beyond the grave or any of the handful of YouTube-friendly scenes of abysmal acting. After that, Stephenson focuses on the rise and fall of actor-turned-dentist George Hardy’s short-lived ambition to take advantage of his newfound D-grade celebrity. If the way-past-their-prime members of Anvil can move on from their semi-celebrity status with half the grace that Hardy does, they’ll be that much better off for it.
At its best, Best Worst Movie is a sharp celebration of the community that cult movies foster. This isn’t a movie about appreciating Troll 2‘s cult as being exceptional or outstanding in any way but, rather, showing viewers what fans and the actors see when they talk about their fixation of choice. Thankfully, by intercutting talking-head interviews from the crowds that line up to midnight screenings with lowlights from Troll 2, Stephenson invites the viewer to laugh with the film’s fans and not necessarily at their zealotry. This is the cult experience distilled, a process of coming together that cannot be manufactured. It materializes spontaneously for whatever reasons, and if you can get into whatever scene is at hand, the effect approaches cosmic proportions on a very intimate scale. You feel that kind of joyful appreciation firsthand in Best Worst Movie thanks to Stephenson’s thorough and even modestly artful direction and editing.
At the same time, Stephenson’s approach to some of his fellow cast members is more than a little bit exploitative. It’s very funny to watch egomaniac Claudio Fragasso eat his own petty words and be presented as the best Zero Mostel character that Zero Mostel never played. But it’s painful to watch shut-in Margo Prey, also known as the frail mother in Troll 2, callously made to look like as a batty cat lady that sacrificed her meager career to take care of her elderly mother. Equally manipulative is the way Stephenson portrays Robert Ormsby, who is especially memorable as Grandpa Seth, as a projection of what Hardy is afraid of becoming: a never-was that never allowed himself to pursue his dreams of stardom. Ormsby lives alone in Salt Lake City, has no children, and didn’t go on to have much of a career after Troll 2 because he refused to move to L.A. or New York. Comparing Ormsby to Hardy makes for a better story but it’s far from a fair treatment of any of the actors involved, especially not Prey (footage of her rambling incoherently about weird noises in the night is just flat-out ghoulish and verges on character assassination).
And yet, in light of where the story ends up, with all parties content to be remembered and not trying to capitalize any further on their nonexistent reputations (save for Fragasso, who now wants to make a sequel to Troll 2), Stephenson’s more reprehensible creative decisions are almost justifiable. It’s hard to blame Stephenson for doing whatever he thought he needed to in order to position his subjects’ lives into a narrative. He’s molded their post-Troll 2 lives into a very entertaining and almost incisive story about fringe stardom. With a little luck, it too will find its audience.