We spend the first few minutes of Best Worst Movie wondering exactly what's going on. It begins as a gentle portrait of a middle-aged guy from Alexander City, Alabama; the town dentist, he's a good-natured, likable fellow, a pillar of his community. We watch him running his errands and hear testimonials from his neighbors--good and well, but who is this guy? And then we find out: his name is George Hardy, and twenty years ago, he starred in Troll 2.
Troll 2, if you're unaware of it (as I was), was shot in Utah over three weeks in the summer of 1989. Originally called Goblins, it was retitled to pass as a sequel to the 1986 movie Troll, even though it has no connection whatsoever to the previous film and, in fact, contains no trolls. It went straight to video and pay cable, but a funny thing happened on its way to obscurity--it began to build a cult audience, wowed by its awesome awfulness. Like Manos the Hands of Fate, it isn't just bad on one level--it's bad on every level. The film rated, for a time, as the worst film ever made on imdb, and it sits at 0% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. But there's a goofy, cheerful lack of self-awareness to the film, and the people who love it, watch it repeatedly, and quote from it have latched on to that element of the enterprise.
Best Worst Movie is the story of the film's long strange trip from VHS doldrums to bona fide cult phenomenon, as told by writer/director Michael Stephenson, once the child actor who played the leading role of "Joshua Waits". He tracks down his co-stars (including Hardy, his on-screen sister Connie Young, and supporting players Darren Ewing, Jason Steadman, and Jason Wright); all of them seem to have about the same awareness of what an embarrassment the film is ("I was in a crappy movie, and I'm a crappy actor... who wants to put Troll 2 on their resume?") Many of them attended the screenings that began popping up in comedy and cult movie venues like the UCB and Landmark Sunshine theaters in New York, the Castro theater in San Francisco, and the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, where they were treated like rock stars (that tour is seen in a fast-paced, exciting montage). It goes international, with screenings in Toronto, fan-made films in Austria, and even informal showings in the green zone in Iraq.
But not everyone involved seems to understand the nature of the cult following. The film travels to Italy to visit the film's writer, director, editor, and composer (there was a bit of a language barrier on set, which might help explain both the wildly uneven acting and the stilted, awkward dialogue). Director Claudio Fragasso is a real piece of work; the delusional auteur proclaims it "an important film... in Italy we call it a parable." The editor proclaims that Troll 2 inspired the Harry Potter universe. Margo Prey, who played the mother (and is, clearly, at least a little bit "off") makes a mind-blowing comparison to Casablanca.
Fragasso's trip to Los Angeles and Salt Lake City screenings are a bit of an eye-opener for him--it genuinely appears as though it has never previously occurred to him that it's a terrible film. When in Italy, he clings to the notion that his masterpiece is merely misunderstood--he claims the movie is now "saying 'Fuck you' to the critics" who derided it, not understanding that it is popular because it's badness is so bold-faced, it allows everyone to be a critic. But in spite of his pompous nature and pretentious pronouncements, it's easy to sympathize with poor Fragasso--this is the fear of anyone who's ever made a film (and I can say this having made a few of my own). As is stated more than once in Best Worst Movie, nobody sets out to make a bad film. Sometimes someone will pour their heart and soul into a picture, and that's just not enough, and it's terrible anyway. Now imagine working very hard on a film and having it only receive recognition because everyone agrees that it's just a terrible piece of shit. That can hurt--and it can make one bitter and angry and petty, as it does in an ugly scene between the panel of actors onstage and the vindictive director heckling from the audience at a reunion event late in the film.
It's easier to feel warmly toward good ol' George Hardy, always smiling, always excited, always so willing to reenact a bad scene or notorious line for just about anyone who asks. In fact, early in the film, we wonder if there's a cruelty towards George that he's not picking up on. But he's in on the joke, happily telling anyone who'll listen about the terrible movie he made twenty years ago. He hosts a screening in Alexander City, and the excitement of the smallish town movie premiere (where you know pretty much everyone in the audience) is perfectly captured, and as the film rides its wave of pseudo-success, it takes him back to his youth, when he wanted nothing more than to be an actor. His story becomes surprisingly involving and touching; there are so many of these stories, of dreams dashed and put aside. George's earnestness and warmth gives the film some pathos, even when their little run of fame starts to lose steam, landing George and Michael at sparsely attended memorabilia shows and indifferent autograph signings at horror conventions. Come to find out, when he's no longer the center of attention, George still has it in him to be a little bit of a diva. Actors.
Best Worst Movie is an affectionate, enjoyable movie, and it's more than just a look at this particular film and the oddballs who love it. It's about shared experiences--the motley crew of would-be actors and oddball Italian filmmakers who made this weird, inexplicable film, and the fans who cottoned to it, passed it around, watched it in groups, communicated in quoted lines, shared elaborate inside jokes about it. Like The Achievers: The Story of Lebowski Fans, it sees fandom as a way that outsiders form bonds and make connections. In Best Worst Movie, we see that it also gives creative people (talented or not) a glimpse of the fame they once yearned for--however unfortunate the reasons for that fame might be.