Saturday, December 2, 2017

Underrated Horror Movie Gems--"Trollhunter"

     Today I'll be discussing a movie that came out in 2010, the Norwegian film "Trollhunter."  Regular readers may notice that this one is by far the most recent movie I've talked about--most of the others were from the 1970's and 1980's.  Also, any Norwegian readers may question the "underrated" part of the title, since this movie was fairly popular there.  (Although, surprisingly, not as much at the box office, since it earned 4.1 million on a 3.5 million budget.)  "Trollhunter" was generally well reviewed there, as it was here in the U.S., where it was released in 2011.  However, as usual, I don't think it received the due it deserves.  I'll follow my usual practice, by beginning with a brief, general, synopsis, followed by a marked, longer, spoiler-rich recap, and then by some discussion about the movie's themes, and some info about the filmmakers themselves.
     A film studio receives an anonymous package, containing over 4 hours of footage.  After extensive analysis, it appears to be genuine.  The revealed film is a rough cut, showing a weird, harrowing tale.  Three college students investigate a suspected bear poacher.  After following and filming him for a while they discover something bizarre--trolls are real living creatures, and this man, Hans, is tasked with tracking and eliminating any that threaten people.  The film crew accompanies Hans on his expeditions and learn about trolls both from him, and from actual experiences with these animals.  They also find out about various government conspiracies surrounding these fantastic creatures.  All of which leads to a shattering climax in the Norwegian wilderness.
     (SPOILERS AHEAD UNTIL MARKED AT BEGINNING OF PARAGRAPH)  After the opening crawl explaining how the film was acquired, the opening scenes of "Trollhunter" show our (initial) three protagonists, who are students at Volda College.  Thomas is the on air reporter.  Kalle is the camera operator.  Johanna is the sound technician.  The students are investigating a suspected bear poacher in the area.  Local hunters think the culprit is a strange man who drives a Land Rover.  After a lucky tip the team tracks this man to a campsite.  They observe his vehicle and camper are surrounding by bright lights, have a weird, foul odor, and that his Land Rover is scored with deep scratches.  An attempt to interview the man is rudely rebuffed.  When a bear carcass is found, local hunters are suspicious.  The crime scene seems contrived, and the bear tracks around the body don't seem right.  The Wildlife Board official on the scene, Finn Haugan, dismisses these suspicions  The team continues to try to follow the strange man (named Hans) on his nightly excursions, and one night they catch up to him deep in the woods.  After hearing odd grunting noises and seeing bright lights in the distance, they observe a fleeing Hans nearing them, yelling out "Troll!"  In the confusion, Thomas is bit by some unknown creature.  Hans helps treat the wound, and begins to act friendlier.  Soon after, the students discover that their car has been destroyed.  Hans then agrees to talk to them, and be filmed, as long as the crew agrees to do whatever he says.  He also asks if any of them are believers in God or Jesus, which they all deny.
     The following night the four go back to the same area.  Hans has the students prepare by stripping naked and rubbing themselves with "troll stench," a disgusting combination of troll excretions and body parts, to mask their human smell so as to not interest or frighten off any trolls.  To the crew's shock, Hans is telling the truth--they do indeed see a troll, in all its huge, ugly, 3-headed glory.  Hans shines a high intensity ultraviolet light on it, which causes it to turn to stone.  Then the cover up begins.  Hans uses a jackhammer to break up the troll into unrecognizable pieces, and a group of Poles arrive with a bear corpse.  Finn Haugan shows up too, and is most displeased to see the film crew.
     As the crew continues to accompany Hans, they learn much more about trolls, and their hunter.  These beasts are  classified into two main groups--woodland trolls, and mountain trolls.  Sub groups include Ringlefinches, Tosserlads, Rimetossers, Mountain Kings, The Harding, and Jotnars.  Some grow multiple false heads next to their original one, believed to have evolved to attract mates or frighten off competitors.  They are mammals, and can live up to 1200 years.  They eat almost anything--rocks, trees, concrete, charcoal, rubber tires, and flesh.  They are also extremely stupid.  An inability to convert Vitamin D to calcium causes them to either explode or calcify into stone when exposed to sunlight or UV light.  They can smell the blood of a Christian man (and presumably woman).  Hans, meanwhile, is rather bitter and burnt out by his job.  He's employed by the secret Troll Security Service (or TSS) to track down and kill any trolls that have left their remote territories and are moving into areas where people live.  He feels he's overworked, since he's the only trollhunter, and underpaid.  His bitterness is why he ultimately decided to let the students film him.  During a subsequent troll encounter, Hans is able to get a blood sample from a troll before he explodes it.  He takes this to a veterinarian, who will test it to try to find out why the trolls are roaming more lately.  Thomas is also showing signs of being ill, perhaps related to his bite.
     After reading about probable troll activity in another part of the country, the team investigates.  Alas, they are trapped in an abandoned mine that a group of Mountain Kings have been using as a lair.  Kalle panics, and reveals that he is in fact a Christian.  The trolls eventually smell them, and during the team's running escape from the mine Kalle is killed by the animals.  The students find a replacement camera operator, a woman named Malica.  Her Muslim beliefs pose a puzzle to Hans, who's not sure how trolls will react to this.  He decided to let her stay with them and see what happens.
     Finally, the group travels to an even more remote, mountainous part of Norway, to check out a Jotnar report.  These are the largest trolls, sometimes growing to over 200 feet (about 61 meters) tall.  This Jotnar has even broken through the giant electric power lines which are secretly keeping it in its own territory.  After they encounter this giant, Hilde the vet calls with news about the blood test--the troll was suffering from rabies, and they think this Jotnar was the original source.  After a heated battle with the Jotnar, during which his Land Rover is damaged, Hans is able to kill it.  As the team is walking back to the nearest busy road Finn and some other TSS people arrive, obviously trying to confiscate the film.  Thomas flees with the film, and makes it to the edge of the road just before collapsing from his rabies-infected bite.  A passing truck driver appears to be the source of the mysterious package sent to the film station.
     The end title cards tell that the students have disappeared, and Kalle's body was never found.  Followed by a snippet of a speech from the Norwegian Prime Minister that shows him slipping up and admitting the existence of trolls, only to have the media ignore this.
      One of my favorite aspects of "Trollhunter" is the way it approaches its fantastical subject in a scientific way.  I find it neat that trolls are presented as living, breathing, animals--huge, monstrous ones, but animals all the same.  They came up with scientifically plausible reasons (or at least plausible enough for me to suspend my disbelief while watching a movie) to some of the troll's most outlandish tributes--the multiple heads, and their extreme aversion to sunlight, or UV light.  (I'll get into the one exception to this, the ability to apparently detect religious belief, in a later paragraph.)  It was a pleasant twist in viewing a movie about a type of supernatural creature that it was rendered in a realistic-ish manner.
     The main character of Hans I find compelling, too.  From what I've read, he's basically a character staple of Norwegian culture in that he's a regular, blue collar, modest guy.  Whenever the students refer to him as a hero, he denies this, and maintains he's just doing a dirty, but necessary job.  He obviously complains about the work, and his lack of salary, etc., but he still does it, and does it well.  And his bearing is so unassuming and played down.  He doesn't hesitate to extract blood from a troll using a syringe, or to go after a troll which is Godzilla-sized, even.  And although at times he appears stoic, like after Kalle is killed, little touches of humanity remain.  He seems to be very friendly with Hilde, the vet.  (Is she a sweetheart?  A relative?)  Plus he seems to get emotional when retelling about how he had to slaughter many trolls for a unnecessary construction project, even those that were pregnant females or newborns too young to stand.
     It's pretty easy to see an anti-government, anti-bureaucracy stance from the film, too.  The TSS comes across poorly.  This organization treats its sole trollhunter, the man who risks his life on almost a daily basis, in a very bad and disrespectful way.  It's also implied that something terrible happened to the students (and Malica).  Either the TSS murdered them, or somehow managed to lock them up in some secret prison, or something.  But, at the same time, the TSS, and their government superiors' ruthlessness is undercut by their occasional ineptness.  Their cover up stories about mystery tornadoes and, especially, the "poached" bears, are often inept and flimsy.  And their use of electric towers as troll fences is suspicious, too, even to a casual observer.  Finally, their own Prime Minister accidentally blurts out the truth about this monster's existence in a televised speech!  How sloppy is that?
     While "Trollhunter" is clearly mostly a horror/dark fantasy movie, it does have some moments of humor.  I liked the scene where Hans is filling out the official troll hunting paperwork.  Even someone who battles monstrous beings, which can be hundreds of feet tall, has to fill out the proper forms.  And presumably he has to dot all the i's and cross all the t's (and do all the other Norwegian diacritical marks) while doing his expense reports, and tax forms.  And the second bear cover up was darkly comical, too.  How the Polish providers screwed up and brought the wrong kind of bear, and how they faked the footprints by using a bear paw stuck on a stick!  Also Hans' reaction to Malica's Muslim faith was funny, and interesting, too.  He basically just shrugs and suggests they see what will happen.
     I realize many potential viewers of this film may be put off immediately when they learn that it's another "found footage" movie.  Which I can understand--since "The Blair Witch Project" it has become overused.  I'm sure any horror fan can list many that use this concept in a ham-fisted way.  But, I clearly didn't mind it in this case.  I found "Trollhunter's" excuse of the film station getting the footage anonymously, and airing it, to be an interesting spin.  One major problem with found footage movies is, who cut the film?  Who scaled down hours of footage, eliminating the boring moments and only keeping in like 80-100 minutes of action?  The (fictional, presumably) film station admits that they did this, although they claim they didn't manipulate any images.  Otherwise, I think the filming is done pretty well.  There are some shaky cam moments, and times when you wonder why any sane person would keep filming rather than just running for their lives, but not like the worst examples within this subgenre.  You can believe that Johanna, Kalle, and Thomas are invested enough in this whistle blowing effort, enough to complete the project.  And the replacement, Malica, is shown as being dedicated, and brave, since she mentions a previous job involved filming lions in the wild.
     The movie's "Norwegian-ness" also works in its favor, to an American like me.  Even if you include Swedish movies, I've only seen a handful of Scandinavian films, like a few Bergman movies,  "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" series, "My Life as a Dog," and a few others.  The foreign setting helped set the tone, helped make this admittedly unbelievable premise seem more plausible and fun. I'm sure Norwegian viewers are surely picking up specifically Norwegian in-jokes and references that I didn't, so they might be enjoying it on more levels, but I still obviously really liked it.  Plus, it was, to me, a novel movie monster--I've seen tons of films about vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghosts, etc., but this is the first one I can recall about trolls.  Finally, the Norwegian countryside footage is undeniably beautiful, and once again mostly new to me, and thus intriguing.
     As I mentioned, there was one issue in the movie which seemed to stick out, namely that trolls could smell people who were Christians.  Their other attributes have plausible scientific explanations, but this one doesn't.  How can spiritual belief, or the lack thereof, cause a person's odor to be different?  It doesn't make sense.  From what I read, this might be a sly comment about the culture of Norway--most of its citizens belong to the official church, but few express an actual belief in God, or Christianity.  Along with many of the troll's characteristics in the movie, this tidbit is based in the folk tales and myths about them.  Other viewers suggest alternate explanations, too.  Some interpret it as Hans' reliance on old myths, even though he admits that the details in old stories often aren't true.  Also, the one time we see that trolls apparently can smell religious belief is during Kalle's final minutes in the mine.  But there is another plausible explanation.  He's clearly afraid, panicked even, and sweating more, as he feverishly uses up the last of the "troll stench" on himself.  Perhaps it wasn't his spiritual beliefs that the trolls smelled, but his increased human body odor, from his sweat, and from his fear.  Surely the rest of the team was also scared, of course, but they didn't appear as terrified as Kalle.  Furthermore, near the end, Hans apparently goads the Jotnar with a religious based song, that even mentions Jesus.  But, this rabid troll may have been simply lashing out at anything that caught its attention.  So even if Hans was blasting, say, Norwegian black metal like Mayhem, the troll probably would have heard it, and attacked.  Even if none of these scientific reasons are correct, and the trolls could somehow magically gauge religious belief, it doesn't ruin the movie for me, obviously.  We also don't conclusively find out if Malica's non-Christian, but religious beliefs also attract trolls, since we only see her during the final Jotnar incident, where it's unknown whether the troll can detect her or not.  Finally, there might be some Christian arrogance here--that Christianity is the only "true" religion, since the (evil?) trolls traditionally are angered by that, and not, say, Judiasm, or Islam, or Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.  Or, alternately, in a place where all the people were Christian, at least officially, maybe this was shorthand for signifying any man, or any person in the region.
     In a movie which is concerned with large, sometimes ridiculously so creatures, an obvious question is, "How do the special effects hold up?"  I often bitch about computer generated images (CGI), because I sometimes find these unconvincing, both directly and indirectly.  Directly because they often resemble video games, and look fake.  Indirectly because sometimes even when the CGI monster looks sufficiently real, the human actors' reactions to it aren't convincing, understandably since they might be reacting to a tennis ball on a stick, or nothing at all in front of a green screen.  However, the effects in "Trollhunter," which I think were mostly/largely CGI for the trolls, were pretty good.  Not perfect, clearly--some moments looked a bit hokey, but overall they were pretty impressive.  The immense Jotnar troll at the end was especially real looking, and thus more terrifying.  So score one for Norwegian studios working on a fairly low budget.
     (END SPOILERS--SAFE FOR EVERYONE)  The cast and crew for the Norwegian "Trollhunter" film were, not surprisingly, comprised almost totally of Norwegians.  As I mentioned previously, I'm not up on Norwegian movies much at all, so I'd never heard of anyone involved with the movie, and haven't seen any of their other projects.  Writer/director Andre Ovredal had worked on several movies prior to this one, and several since.  A recent (2016) movie, "The Autopsy of Jane Doe," was even done with an American studio, and starred Brian Cox and Emile Hersch.  The actors who played the three film students, and Malica, were evidently mostly unknowns.  Some of them had appeared in movies before or since, but they don't seem to have become very famous  Hans, though, was played by a famous Norwegian entertainer named Otto Jespersen.  He's hosted radio and television shows, and is known as a comedian.  One with a bite, though, as some of his material is controversial and political.  Some of his other projects include the movies "Odd Little Man" (2000), "Borning" (2014), and "Borning 2" (2016).  The character of Finn Haugan was played by Hans Morten Hansen.  He's best known as a comedian, especially in the stand up format.  He even holds the record for the longest stand up performance--38 hours and 14 minutes, set in 2010.  He was allowed brief breaks every hour, but couldn't repeat material more than once every four hours.  The small part of the Power Company manager was played by Knut Naerum, yet another Norwegian comedian.  He's also been a comedy writer and comic book creator.  He's probably best known for the show Nytt pa Nytt (News Anew), a television program.  Finally, Robert Stoltenberg portrayed the Polish bear provider.  He's also a Norwegian radio personality, comedian, and television show performer.
     Therefore, if you like monster movies, especially those with a more scientific bent to them, I think you'll probably enjoy "Trollhunter."  It's got quite a creative idea, has some good scares, a few funny moments, all in its own unique way.  An English language remake had been planned, but was ultimately cancelled late in 2016.  Which I'm glad to hear.  Remakes of foreign movies are often unnecessary at best, and awful at worst.  When watching a film about a Norwegian mythic figure, I think you should see the Norwegian version of it.

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