Those of us who can spend hours watching terrible movies sometimes find it hard to explain why, even to ourselves. At best, it can seem like a huge waste of time; at worst, sitting around guffawing at stiff acting & silly writing & clunky direction can seem mean-spirited & flippantly knowing, “ironic” in the worst sense. It can also seem disrespectful of the honest effort, however misguided, that goes into even the lamest movie. I once heard a Hollywood line producer remark that “the person who made the worst movie you ever saw deserves an Oscar,” & I’m inclined to agree with him.
All the same, the phenomenon of the “good bad movie” is undeniable for all but the most humorless of cinema lovers, & it gets a fine exploration in Best Worst Movie, showing Friday & Saturday at MadCap Theater in Tempe.
What they didn’t know until recently was that the film had gradually developed into cult favorite on the level of such timeless disasters as Plan Nine From Outer Space & Robot Monster & Manos, The Hands of Fate. This wasn’t just any bad movie; this was a bad classic, & Stephenson & the rest of the Troll 2 gang were stars.
No one enjoyed this realization more than George Hardy, a successful, divorced dentist in the small town of Alexander City, Alabama, who had, almost two decades earlier, played Stephenson’s father in Troll 2, having auditioned on a lark while he was practicing dentistry in Salt Lake City. An enormously jovial, spotlight-loving fellow, Hardy dropped everything &, along with a couple of the other actors, followed a tour of Troll 2 screenings around the country, soaking up the adulation of adoring fans.
As Stephenson’s camera, in turn, follows him around, Hardy quickly establishes himself as the star of Best Worst Movie. Sort of a Scott Bakula-Charles Napier hybrid with a winning drawl, the amiable Hardy grins & giggles his way through Q&A sessions at screenings, gleefully repeating the odd line from the film which, he learns, has become an audience favorite: “You can’t piss on hospitality! I won’t allow it!”
Yet he also learns how narrow & organic that adulation is. When he ventures outside of the cult faithful & tries to interest, say, the people in his town, or fans at a horror convention, in Troll 2, they stare at him, baffled & embarrassed.
Hardy & Stephenson’s odyssey into the heart of their own offbeat fame has some poignant stops along the way: It stings a little when the actor that played Stephenson’s grandfather good-naturedly tells us that he’s pretty much frittered his life away. It stings a lot more when they visit Troll 2’s leading lady, a sweet, pretty woman with the marvelous name Margo Prey, & find that she’s become a reclusive caregiver to her elderly mother.
Mostly, though, Best Worst Movie offers high comedy, as when the intense Italian director of Troll 2, Claudio Fragasso, & the nearly-as-intense screenwriter, Rossella Drudi, are shown to quite un-self-consciously regard the film as a serious work of art. At a screening, we see that Fragasso—in part, perhaps, because of the language barrier—doesn’t see what’s so damn funny, & his eyes flash with anger at the audience’s laughter.
This, perhaps, is the key to the Good Bad Movie, as opposed to the merely bad movie. The Good Bad Movie, however inept, still arises from a genuine desire to share a vision with an audience. The poor fragile leading lady rates Troll 2 alongside Casablanca or a Katherine Hepburn movie by comparison to today’s big-studio blockbusters, because, she says, these are concerned with explosions & car chases, while Troll 2 is about people. On one level she seems deluded, but maybe on another she’s right. It’s not for cinematic ineptitude that fans love Troll 2, but for the vibrant eccentricity of its people. Their absurdity in Troll 2 combines with their frailty & vanity in Best Worst Movie to make these people complex & endearing, & the audience’s laughter rings with love.