The last thing I expected from Best Worst Movie, a documentary about Troll 2, was to have my heart warmed. But the film, which reunites the cast of the seminally terrible film and delves into the world of Troll 2 fandom, is sweet and good natured and captures the love of cinema in a most unexpected way.

Troll 2 was shot in Utah by an Italian director and his crew, using an amateur cast – including a dentist dabbling in acting. The movie, which has nothing to do with trolls or the original movie Troll, went straight to DVD and found a life as a trash cinema classic. While Troll 2 doesn’t have the kind of gore and nudity that marks most midnight movies (it’s PG-13), it’s filled with surreal flourishes and shattered narrative sense. The movie isn’t just bad, it’s bad in a kind of transcendent, idiot savant way. The film fails completely on every level, and yet that’s what makes it so enjoyable.

Best Worst Movie is directed by Michael Stephenson, the young star of Troll 2. When he discovered that the movie not only reigned at the bottom of the IMDB 100 Worst list (at the time) but also drew huge crowds to screenings, he began documenting what was happening to him and his fellow actors. Stephenson and other Troll 2 actors – especially that dentist, the endlessly amiable George Hardy – began traveling the country appearing at screenings, signing autographs, doing Q&As and repeating their infamous lines from the film, including Hardy’s ‘You can’t piss on hospitality!’ (brought about by Stephenson’s character literally pissing on food). 

What Stephenson captured wasn’t just the world of people who love Troll 2 in ways so ironic they blow right past irony and become totally sincere. Much more interesting is the journey of the actors, all of whom had more or less moved on not just from Troll 2 but from acting in general. Hardy had returned home to the South, becoming a fixture in his small town, a man so beloved that even his ex-wife likes him. Others had gone on to musical careers, or just making livings. Stephenson, usually with Hardy in tow, dutifully tracks everyone down, including the man who took a weekend leave from the mental hospital just to play the Nilbog town grocer. Most of the people Stephenson encounters are level headed and have a great time with their infamy, while some are ashamed. There are a couple of tragic stories in there too, but Stephenson and Hardy are an impeccable comic team, creating lightness and levity in some of the creepiest and most harrowing situations.

The film’s conflict, if there is any, comes from Troll 2‘s director Claudio Fragasso, a pretentious director of Italian schlock. There’s no behind the scenes footage of Troll 2, so Stephenson brings Fragasso and the participating cast back to Utah, back to the house where the film was shot, and re-enacts many of the scenes. It’s kind of a brilliant idea, as all of the stories about how difficult Fragasso was come alive as we watch the director slip into tyrannical mode while just fucking around with the actors. Fragasso can’t really understand that people love Troll 2 because it’s bad, but just when you get sick of his pomposity, Stephenson shares a moment where the director of numerous direct-to-video films sees the 35mm print of one of his movies for the first time ever. It’s sweet and it’s humanizing and to me it sums up what the movie is all about.

Stephenson has no bitterness over an acting career that didn’t pan out, and he’s grown out of being ashamed of Troll 2. He seems to have grown out of being ashamed in general – in one scene he has Hardy throw him over the bigger man’s shoulder and re-enact scenes from the film. It’s the relationship between Hardy and Stephenson that drives the film for me; you would believe the two had kept in close contact ever since the film was made. They’re buddies but there’s also a father/son thing going on, albeit a daffy father and his bemused son.

Hardy is the star of the film, no doubt. A big handsome guy who had once wanted to be an actor, Hardy finds the latter day Troll 2 fame intoxicating. And while he basks in the laughs and applause of audiences around the country (and dives into the merch world, printing his own t-shirts), he never quite seems to get it. Hardy arranges a fundraiser screening of Troll 2 for his little town and is surprised when his elderly patients and other quaint townsfolk are baffled by the piece of shit movie he shows them. Hardy is a great screen presence, and spending time with him is a treat, but the personal journey that he undertakes is surprising and sweet and sort of humbling. 

There’s that word again: sweet. But Best Worst Movie really is sweet, sweet in the way that only lovers of trash films can truly understand. Loving bad movies is like loving a child born as just a head – not everybody can do it, and even fewer can really revel in it. There are some folks in Troll 2 who dig the movie for hipper than thou reasons, but there are many, many more who love it for its weirdness and its uniqueness and the way it is unabashed in its badness. Among them is a friend of mine, Alamo Drafthouse programmer Zack Carlson, who is perhaps the biggest Troll 2 fan in the world – he even gets the VHS box art tattooed on his arm during the film. 

I think it’s people like Zack, the people who embrace bad movies, who love cinema most of all. Loving film is about loving the experience of watching film, and that experience can be just as strong and wonderful during a terrible film as during a great film. There are some folks who understand that you can be transported by what’s on screen no matter how conventionally bad it is; just as not every great painting needs to be a photorealistic image of something recognizable, not every movie has to be ‘well made’ to be great. There’s heart in Troll 2, and there’s heart in the people who love it (and who share their love for it with each other). Best Worst Movie finds that heart and shares it with you, reminding you why you love  movies in the first place: you sit in a dark theater and experience things with people you may not know but who, after you’ve been together through it all, can’t really be strangers anymore.

8.5 out of 10

Best Worst Movie is currently finishing its festival run. For info on where it might be screening near you, keep an eye on the official website.