Horror operates in phases, with one subject or style briefly finding popularity and getting rehashed to death, abandoned to lie quietly for another decade or two while another type of horror movie gains prominence. The era of “torture porn” officially ended last year when Paranormal Activity crushed Saw VI at the box office, plunging us into our new horror phase: the found footage movie, a sub-genre invented by Cannibal Holocaust and popularized by The Blair Witch Project.
As someone who is already tiring of found footage horror movies, I’m as surprised as anybody that I fell in love with Troll Hunter, a small(ish) budget Norwegian film that mines the quiet, lost-in-the-woods creepiness from Blair Witch and the epic, jaw-dropping scale of Cloverfield and combines the two, resulting in a film that, while not revolutionary, is one of the very best of its kind.
The set-up is identical to just about every other found footage movie: a black screen and text informing us that we’re about to see real documentary footage that was discovered under mysterious circumstances and so on and so forth. Then we’re plunged straight into the story, following three student filmmakers as they set out to make a documentary about bear poaching. After tracking a poaching suspect across the country, they follow him into the woods, only to find themselves under attack from something very big and very nasty.
The “poacher” turns out to be Hans, an agent for Norway’s TSS, or Troll Security Service, a top secret government organization that tracks and manages the troll population, keeping the ancient creatures sequestered in remote regions and eliminating those that stray close to the human population.
If you think this sounds a little silly, well, that’s because it is, but like the killer Santa Claus film Rare Exports, Troll Hunter plays its premise completely straight, ignoring the fact that literally translating the imagery and ideas of fairy tales is potentially shaky, cornball ground. The result is a faux doc that actually feels authentic despite its subject matter. Troll Hunter is filled with attention to its fictional details, exploring the physical mechanics of tracking and killing mystical creatures as well as the paperwork and bureaucracy that’s required. The world building in this film is immersive and funny, accepting even the most outlandish concepts of troll myths (turning to stone when they die, being able to smell the blood of a Christian) without blinking an eye, allowing scientists and experts to rattle off about these creatures with deadpan authenticity.
Our filmmaker protagonists are likable enough as far as doomed-found-footage-protagonists go, but the real star of the show is Hans,* who’s not some swaggering, wisecracking badass, but a consummate professional. World weary and tough-as-nails, Hans feels like a real guy and when he calmly puts on an awkward metal suit to get close enough to a troll to obtain a blood sample, he has the look of a man who’s just getting too old for this shit but doesn’t have the nerve to retire. After all, who’s going to do this if he doesn’t?
Of course, all of this would be for naught if the trolls themselves didn’t deliver. With a budget that’s only a fraction of Hollywood films, Troll Hunter delivers an impressive group of terrifying, amazingly designed trolls. Most impressive is the variety of trolls; we are told there are many different species and types of troll and
the film does its damnedest to show us as many as possible. From the pack of cave-dwelling, furry ten-foot tall trolls to the nasty three-headed twenty-footer to a troll of nearly Kaiju proportions, there is a tremendous amount of imagination in each design, maintaining the monsters’ fantastical looks while giving them true weight. There is no attempt to “update” the trolls or make them look like something we’d actually see in the real world. These are the species of troll that have inhabited Norway for centuries, the ones that were written about in fairy tales in the first place. They haven’t changed. They just stay hidden.**
I’m impressed by how scary Troll Hunter can get. I’m impressed by the sense of scale. I’m impressed by the droll, character-based sense of humor. I’m impressed by the little details and the small touches, by how it maintains its documentary reality far more coherently than any other fake doc I’ve seen in recent years. Like Rare Exports (seriously, these two films would make a wonderful double feature), Troll Hunter makes use of its gorgeous locations, making the Norwegian countryside look like the most beautiful (and terrifying) place on Earth. Maybe that’s why all of the best horror movies are coming from outside of the United States these days; foreign filmmakers seem to recognize the importance of location more than anyone else.
It won’t be long before the found footage genre is run into the ground to make room for the next phase. We can expect to see more and more unmemorable fake docs about monsters and ghosts in the next few years. If we’re lucky, though, we’ll get something as good as Troll Hunter every so often. Maybe Troll Hunter can even get an American release seeing that it’s not only good but mainstream and totally accessible-
Oh, wait. Subtitles.
*I would tell you the actor’s name, as well as the writer and director, but as of writing this, Troll Hunter is absent on IMDB.
**The trailer does its absolute best to spoil every money shot in the movie. Avoid it like the plague.