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SXSW Snapshot: Michael Paul Stephenson’s “Best Worst Movie”

SXSW Snapshot: Michael Paul Stephenson's "Best Worst Movie"

Despite all the fantastic literature on cult movies, the phenomena generally speak for themselves. Outside of J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s classic “Midnight Movies” tome, cultural analysis of cult movies tends to adopt an outsider’s gaze, observing the ongoing niche engagement with oddities like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” but not expressing any appreciation for the product. The result is somewhat distancing and ultimately self-defeating. The documentary “Best Worst Movie” provides an alternative to that trend by actively participating in the cult sensation at its center: “Troll 2,” widely regarded as one of most spectacularly bad motion pictures of the last twenty-odd years. Michael Paul Stephenson, a child actor in the movie who learned to live with his participation in the mess that ensued, directs this amusing portrait of the underground sensation built around the quintessentially godawful “Troll” sequel. Due to his own connection to the material, Stephenson manages to inject a personal quality to the story where other filmmakers would likely condescend to it.

However, “Best Worst Movie” mainly owes its success to the charisma of its primary subject, “Troll 2” leading man George Hardy, whose quaint life as a dentist in a small Alabama town creates a strange and endearing contrast with his unsuccessful foray into acting. Stephenson follows Hardy on the road as he entertains audiences at screenings of “Troll 2” around the country (leading to cameos by a number of influential film programmers, including Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse wizard Tim League). Hardy’s down-to-earth friendliness and genuine interest in playing into the unexpected fandom revolving around “Troll 2” give the movie a sweet, affable vibe. Those unfamiliar with “Troll 2” will likely want to check it out with this added context. At the same time, Stephenson’s documentary fails to give us the whole story. It does not aim to become an expose. Stephenson doesn’t tell us if the hilariously pompous director of “Troll 2,” Claudio Fragrasso, actually achieved anything of value in his other movies. Without the aesthetic analysis, we’re forced to take “Troll 2” for what it is without any indication of what might have been. Still, it’s intriguing to see Hardy attempt to take “Troll 2” beyond its limited appeal and find himself adrift at a horror convention indifferent to his role. At the end of the day, a bad movie cannot move beyond an audience unwilling to accept it on its own terms.

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