Found-footage movies are nothing new. Contrary to popular belief, they didn’t begin with The Blair Witch Project, and they sure as hell didn’t begin with Paranormal Activity. The basic concept is pretty brilliant in its utilitarianism and simplicity — long-lost video or film footage of disturbing events is at last unearthed and screened. This fictional conceit, the faux-documentary, can lead to all kinds of interesting variations, which is why it’s become a bit of a sub-genre, particularly under the heading of horror.
The first found-footage movie is generally considered to be Ruggero Deodato’s controversial and frequently-banned Cannibal Holocaust, from 1980. I haven’t seen this movie, primarily because it reportedly has scenes of sexual violence (a no-fly zone whenever I can help it) and legitimate scenes of animal cruelty (which brought the movie and its director under fire from activists).
The next found-footage film to make a major impact was 1992’s Man Bites Dog, from France, which I have seen, and which I definitely recommend if you can handle disturbing psychological territory. The conceit of Man Bites Dog (a great title) is that a documentary film crew follows an enthusiastic serial killer as he goes about his day. Like remora fish clinging to a shark’s undercarriage, the crew somehow are above any harm, but that doesn’t mean they can’t become increasingly complicit in the increasingly horrifying acts that their subject keeps committing.
Some of the better, and far more playful, found-footage movies of recent years have been USA’s Cloverfield (2008), and in particular, Spain’s [REC] and its sequel [REC]2 in 2007 and 2009. These were enjoyable and inventive takes on the giant-monster movie and the zombie-invasion movie, clever films which were able to sustain believable reasons for the camera to stay on during cataclysmic events, and which were able to milk the found-footage concepts for maximum suspense. But the most financially successful found-footage movies by far have been 1999’s The Blair Witch Project and 2007’s Paranormal Activity, which ironically are among the least creatively successful (to me, anyway). Restraint is a virtue, but these two movies err too far on the side of restraint — they are almost stingy with how much they withhold from showing the audience. Neither of these movies ever give you a good or even passing look at the supernatural threats which plague their protagonists all movie long. I fully understand why a sense of mystery is important, but if all you ever give an audience is spooky noises, you’re kind of wasting our time. We need to get some confirmation that what we’ve been hearing and fearing for two hours is actually there.
Eventually these found-footage horror movies must show something.
Playing it coy is only sexy for so long — sooner or later you gotta show your tits, cinematically speaking, or else you’re gonna send us home with a major cinematic case of blue balls.
All of the above is to say that Norway’s Trollhunter does not have that problem. In fact, Trollhunter is more than happy to show its tits, and they’re spectacular. Big old droopy, hairy, troll tits.
Trollhunter, or The Troll Hunter depending on which poster you look at, is a terrific example of the found-footage sub-genre. It’s a little too light-hearted to be considered straight-up horror, but it’s got giant angry monsters in it, so I’ll allow it for these purposes. Written and directed by André Øvredal (don’t expect me to do that again), Trollhunter follows a trio of film students as they follow the story of some bear attacks reported in the mountains. Their search leads them to a tired-looking man named Hans, who seems mysteriously motivated up until the moment where he reveals himself to be a government-appointed sanitation worker charged with single-handedly containing the nation’s troll problem. He’s basically a Ghostbuster; a kind of beleaguered janitor who uses scientific techniques to defeat these gigantic lumbering trolls of the hinterlands. Otto Jespersen is apparently a famous Norwegian comedian and arguably a terrible person, but he gives a good, dry performance as the title character.
What I love about Trollhunter is that it plays as much like a National Geographic documentary as anything. The hand-held cinematography manages to capture the chilly beauty of the Norwegian countryside, a location under-seen by us Americans, and it does nearly as much to make Norway appealing as the Lord Of The Rings movies did for New Zealand. Just as a travellogue, it’s fun to watch. Trollhunter is also absurdly detailed in its zoology — the majority of the movie truly is just Hans explaining troll physiology to his incredulous interviewers. The movie goes a long way towards explaining why trolls turn to stone when exposed to sunlight, how trolls are located and disposed of, and how each individual species of troll is different from another. It’s definitely pseudo-science, but it’s great fun to see the level of imagination that went into describing these creatures. If the movie has a flaw, it’s that the exposition goes on for so long — it never felt less than compelling to me, but it does become noticeable, when Hans is talking about the physiology of trolls even while he’s dispatching trolls.
But why quibble — the movie has trolls!
For a movie called Trollhunter, we get too see all kinds of trolls being hunted. It’s at least twenty minutes before we get our first glimpse, but once we do, the movie becomes a sort of glee-machine. There’s a three-headed troll, a bridge troll, a ‘final-level’ troll three times the size of King Kong… and ain’t none of them camera-shy. Trollhunter shows no signs of misunderstanding its appeal — people came to see trolls, and goddamnit, trolls are gonna be seen. I learned more about trolls from this movie than I even knew I wanted to know about. I learned that trolls can smell the blood of a Christian man, I learned what trolls like to eat (mainly sheep), I learned about troll reproduction, I even learned that the phrase “troll piss” is pronounced the same in Norwegian as it is in English. The effects are tremendous for a film that I wouldn’t assume had much money to throw around — the trolls in the movie are seamlessly convincing, full of personality, even somewhat sympathetic. If you’re the kind of person who’s inclined to watch a movie called Trollhunter, you will not at all be disappointed by its marquee draw.
And as I suggested earlier, Trollhunter is a sterling example of the found-footage genre. It’s constantly clever — the kids don’t shut off the camera, even while they’re running for their lives, because for a long while they don’t take the troll threat seriously (would you?). It makes sense that, especially with the arrogance of youth, they would feel like they can safely film these goofy-looking creatures, even though they’re humongous and stomping straight towards them. Whether the camera gets damaged, or nearly confiscated, there are always interesting reasons to keep the faux-documentary a present element of the story. Even when the original cameraman has to be replaced (no further detail necessary here), the movie keeps chugging along. Until it doesn’t. This movie was “found,” remember.
Good thing. Trollhunter is absolutely one of the more entertaining movies to be released in the United States thus far in 2011. Don’t let me oversell it — it doesn’t bear much weight, isn’t particularly profound, isn’t suspenseful for more than a minute. But if it’s a trifle, it’s as fun as a trifle can possibly be. It’s clever, imaginative, humorous, and makes the most out of its geography and setting. And I’ll tell you something else:
Obviously, if anyone, the people who made this movie should have been the ones hired to remake The Thing.