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in Filmmaking
on Mar 16, 2009

The most unlikely act of cultural excavation and redemption, Michael Paul Stephenson’s Best Worst Movie is a hilarious and poignant celebration of not only the communal experience of making and watching movies but the sheer randomness of life itself. The doc is Stephenson’s attempt to find out why a seemingly execrable B-movie he made as a child actor, Troll 2, has garnered a cult following of viewers who not only get off on its badness but also find an odd kind of joy in its screwy storytelling.

While Stephenson is present in the film, he smartly chooses as the doc’s focus one of his co-stars, a small-town Alabama dentist named George Hardy, who onscreen resembles a cross between Jim Nabors and Joe Biden. Hardy is the quintessential American optimist, whose sunny disposition and boundless good cheer makes him beloved by his patients, his town and even his ex-wife. Stephenson follows Hardy as he discovers that the 1989 no-budget horror film he acted in has developed a cult audience that stages parties and screenings, complete with viewers who know the film line by line and shout out its most egregious bits of dialogue. As Best Worst Movie progresses, Stephenson widens his scope, watching as Hardy reconnects with fellow co-stars, travels to screenings of the film across the country, and even reunites with the director, Claudio Fragasso, who, while he won’t turn down the airline tickets to the screenings can’t seem to come to grips with his film’s designation on iMDB as the worst film ever made.

I’ll confess here to not having seen Troll 2. And, in fact, I’ll also admit that half way through this movie I wondered whether or not the whole thing was some big put-on and whether there even is a Troll 2. (Perhaps my mind was warped by having just attended Lance Weiler’s ARG event.) But, as hard as it may be to swallow while watching Best Worst Movie, Troll 2, with its tale of vegetarian goblins attempting to turn a young boy’s family into edible plants, is for real. Watching the footage, it’s easy to see why Stephenson distanced himself from the movie for so many years and why one of its actresses basically views it as having ended her career. Indeed, the film’s high-camp quotient is so extreme, and Stephenson and editors Andrew Matthews and Katie Graham are so adept in hitting every possible comic beat that big chunks of the film were inaudible over the audience’s laughter.

But what makes Best Worst Movie great is not just its sheer hilarity. Indeed, Stephenson reaches for and accesses something moving and even kind of deep in his movie. From the older actor who realizes that he may have frittered away the years to the fragile, damaged actresss who played the mom to Hardy’s third-act recognition that perhaps he too should put the VHS of Troll 2 away on the shelf and get back to his life, Stephenson has turned his collaborators on the film into a wistful and oddly sagacious group of commentators on subjects ranging from cultural value to aging to concepts of permanence, legacy and renewal. There are a lot of great documentaries about movies and moviemaking, but most of them either celebrate a great movie or detail a particularly crazy production. Best Worst Movie is one of the few films that focuses on the cultural and, more importantly, human trail that films leave in their wake. Highly recommended.

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