Riffing on the DIY monster-movie approach of "Cloverfield" and the absurd supernatural premise of "Ghostbusters," Norwegian mockumentary "The Troll Hunter" offers high-caliber entertainment despite a low-budget production. The shaky camera suggests "The Blair Witch Project," but writer-director Andre Ovredal's impressive array of fantastical creatures, and the film itself, plays more like "Jurassic Park."
So, yes, "Troll Hunter" is derivative, but Ovredal seamlessly assembles his reference points with a steady ability to do them proud. The movie takes the form of footage shot by Norwegian film students as they track down a series of mysterious bear killings in the countryside. Giddy young Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud) leads the charge with camerman Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen) and sound girl Johanna (Johanna Mørck), tracking the movements of bearded woodsman Hans (Norwegian comedian Otto Jespersen). Hans' motives remain elusive until the team tracks him to the wilderness and comes face to face with his foe—a gigantic beastly figure that instantly validates Norwegian lore. With the sudden introduction of its advanced special effects (designed with 3D modeling software from sketches by renowned Norwegian illustrator Theodore Kittelsen), "Troll Hunter" advances from a clever gimmick to full-on fantasy, culminating with a spectacular confrontation between Hans and the troll that ends with the creature turning to stone.
Hans' motives now revealed, the reclusive man invites his young companions to continue filming his exploits. Whereas "Blair Witch" played hide-and-go-seek with the mystery of its titular threat, "Troll Hunter" delves into a fascinating underworld of government conspiracies. Ovredal satirically portrays Hans' life as an employee of the Troll Security Service in which he is at the mercy of a controlling wildlife bureaucrat (Hans Morten Hansen) intent on hiding the existence of trolls from the rest of the world by covering their tracks with fake bear paws. Diving back into Hans's ongoing battles against the mythological entities, "Troll Hunter" earns the right to make his mission play as a serious quest and positing Hans in the role of dedicated public servant. "He's the original Norwegian hero," Thomas observes after learning about Hans's role weeding out trolls from the country's tunnels in the 1970s. As social commentary, "Troll Hunter" depicts the tensions between governmental demands and the labor responsible for carrying them out. Hans does the dirty work no one else can do.
It helps that the trolls come to life as predatorial monstrosities. While Ovredal might have used his shaky-cam aesthetic to strategically avoid the need for effects, he instead confronts the challenge of bringing fairy tales to hideous life. The director views his creations as subhuman carnivores in constant survival mode, not unlike the prehistoric assailants in "Jurassic Park." (Ovredal pays homage to that film with a final chase scene that mirrors the one Steven Spielberg set up between a tyrannosaur and a jeep.) But Ovredal's channeling of existing blockbuster spectacles comes off as neither coy nor cute; instead, they acknowledge that the tools of imaginative storytelling can work under a multitude of circumstances and no longer cost untold millions to pull off. A paean to escapism as art, "Troll Hunter" has the gall to take a ridiculous premise and treat it dead seriously.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Genre fans will eat it up (and many already have, since the film had a secret screening at Fantastic Fest in Austin last year, where the crowd went wild). Already a hit in its native country, the action-adventure premise of "Troll Hunter" should generate enough curiosity to propel its popularity on VOD, fueling word of mouth during its limited release.
Magnolia Pictures will open "The Troll Hunter" in April.
criticWIRE grade: A