Scream Factory have become increasingly more prolific in the past two years, to the point where it becomes almost difficult to track their exhaustive work. This year alone has seen the company released nearly 80 titles (almost half their current catalog), and with another 20-plus slated for next year already. While their top-tier releases offer some of the most popular cult classics (Mad Max, Army of Darkness, and, Escape from New York all saw releases from SF this year), their selections tend to range from the best-of-the-best to, in the case of today’s discussion, the best-of-the-worst. From Empire International Pictures’ Troll to its completely unconnected except in name follow up, Troll 2, to Garbage Pail Kids, SF have delivered three of genre cinema’s most bizarre features to Blu-ray.
The first — and, to be forthright, the best — of these films to find its way to the cinema was the Ed Naha penned and John Carl Buechler directed Troll. The film’s plot follows the Potter family after their relocation to a San Franciscan apartment building. Eventually, the youngest of the Potter clan, Wendy, finds herself in the building’s basement, where she encounters and is attacked by a troll. The troll possesses her body and attempts to blend back into family life, and, in spite her irrational behavior, she mostly succeeds. The family chalks up Wendy’s new behavior to adolescent mischief, but her brother, Harry (for those following, yes, Harry Potter), grows suspicious. With no one else to turn to, Harry strikes up a bond with an older woman in the building named Eunice St. Clair (Lost in Space’s June Lockhart). Eunice reveals to Harry that she is, in fact, a witch and that the troll who has possessed his sister is an ancient Wizard (her ex-Lover) named Torok, who was banished to spend eternity as a Troll. Together with Eunice, Harry must stop Torok before he possesses all of the apartment’s tenants and grows strong enough to take on the world.Despite the film’s misleading poster — which, as we know with Empire, was only a tool to sell the film and had no real bearing on the work they made —, Troll is far from what could be called a horror film. There are some familiar elements but, like many Empire films, the film is far more hyrbidic and should principally be described as more of a fantasy film than anything else. While Ed Naha’s claim to fame would eventually become Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Troll was certainly his first mark on the industry, after two relatively unknown, unsuccessful screenplays. Naha’s plot is a bit convoluted but the script is quite strong and makes for a fun film. It plays itself like a modern fairy tale, taking the fantastical elements totally serious while, at the same time, not skirting the darker nature that was prevalent in a lot of original fairy tales — things that have all but disappeared in most modernized retellings. In this light, Troll remains refreshing even today.
Prior to directing Troll, Buechler had only directed a segment in the earlier Empire quasi-anthology film The Dungeonmaster (slated for a upcoming BD release via Scream Factory). Buechler was primarily a special effects artists, in fact, he pulled double duty in this film, both creating the design for the trolls as well as directing. Those familiar with his work on Ghoulies will recognize his stamp here, in fact, it would appear as if some of the design (if not a handful of the creations themselves) were reused on this film — and you can spot an early appearance of what would become the titular Cellar Dweller, another film that Buechler worked on. It’s sort of fun experiment trying to spot all of the elements that were repurposed either here or elsewhere. As his debut, Troll is rather impressive. With his training in effects, the film has a fantastic visual presence; even if some of the other elements aren’t always spot on. It’s also surprisingly artistic, almost like a live action version of Ralph Bakshi’s animations. Had the film been released in the 70s, it would be easy to imagine it being even larger of a hit, given its eccentric, counter-culture attitude (and drug references).Troll is, unironically, a good film. Now that Troll 2 has become such a phenomenon, there is probably a stronger desire by many to create out of Troll that same kind of so-bad-it’s-good type of experience, but that is an injustice to the film itself. There are spotty elements here, sure, but they generally work in the film’s favor. For instance, Michael Moriarty’s performance will probably be pegged by many as overwrought and too expressionistic, but you can really only make that claim if you are not familiar with Moriarty’s work. Moriarty has sort of crafted a career out of over the top performances; it’s clear that it is a style and one he does well. So while it might not work for you, it’s a far stretch from truly bad performances (like can be seen in Troll 2). Sometimes other good performances are somewhat sullied by Naha’s dialogue, which can be admittedly a bit patchy. This is probably most noticeable in Lockhart’s role. As the mouthpiece for much of the exposition, Lockhart has to spout some rather ridiculous lines but she makes it work.
The film’s strongest attribute, and something that can often be said about Empire films, is the special effects. Buechler and his team of Empire regulars create out of them a really impressive, singular universe. The world of Troll doesn’t always make a lot of logical sense, but Naha’s script is given levity through the direction and design. From the rotoscoped effects (which, granted, haven’t aged that well), to the creature design, to the stop motion animation, the fluid nature of the world-building within Troll really gives the crew a lot of artistic freedom. Its a colorful, vibrant, and trippy world, full of mythical creatures and plants. It can be silly, but it raises silliness to a artistic platform. If there was any doubt that a great deal of drugs were not consumed making this film, the musical number halfway through will be sure to erase those doubts…oh and did we mention that Sonny Bono plays a playboy in it?Upon its release Troll was another hit for Empire. It made more than double the budget back in its theatrical release alone, before it found its way to video where it was sure to make Band and Co. even more profits. It was the surprise success of Troll that unintentionally spawned one of cinema’s most bizarre releases, the unofficial and completely unconnected sequel, Troll 2, five years later. When Troll 2 started its life it was still under the original — and fitting title — of Goblins. Somewhere along the line — and this is something that should have been addressed more in the documentary about the film, Best Worst Movie — the producer and Italian schlock-master Joe D’Amato had the idea to retitled the film Troll 2 to play off the success of Troll — something not only D’Amato but all of Italian B Cinema was known to do. When this idea came along, I cannot be sure, but if it come before the production the filmmakers did little to try and rectify it. The creatures are never once referred to as anything other than goblins, and there is no attempt to link goblins to trolls, which could feasibly be done, given the expansiveness of the first film’s universe. In fact, explanations, as anyone who has seen the film will be sure to note, seem to be of little concern for either Fragasso or his co-writer and wife, Rossella Drudi. It is for this very reason that we still talk about the film today because the complete lack for cohesion or logics within the film makes it the special kind of experience that it is. Troll 2 creates its own logic, it’s up to you to take the ride or not.
Today, Troll 2’s reputation has, in many ways, preceded the film. There are probably many people who could recount full scenes from the film without having even seen it. It’s a fixture on the cult cinema circuit and for good reason. While some aspects of the film have been hyperbolized in years, there are things that are certainly enjoyable every time you watch them. George Hardy’s performance is as bad (and great) as they come. It doesn’t matter how many times you watch it, Hardy stumbling through his lines is always a treat. But, its not because how bad he is that makes it fun — there are plenty of terrible performances in film —, it’s because how eager and genuine his performance is — something that can be seen in the documentary to an even greater extent.But it’s not just the script or the acting, everything about Troll 2 fails to live up to its potential — barring the soundtrack, although that would probably differ for others. Fragasso is not a bad director. His films are usually of the cheesier variety, but he has proven himself competent (see Beyond the Darkness, also available via Scream Factory, for evidence), making the film’s incompetence only that much more odd. The film had a budget of 200,000, which is not necessarily big but its not clear where that money was spent. It was absolutely not spent on the non-professional cast and, with what looks like a two-dollar effects budget, and it certainly wasn’t spent for make-up and creature design. This all adds to the genuine strangeness of the film, and ultimately has become the principle aspect that has attracted viewers. Its a movie that asks a lot of questions but answers few, and there is something fascinating about that. One of the things that comes across is that the film was, in large part, a renunciation of vegetarians. As Drudi happily professes in the documentary, a lot of her friends were going vegetarian at the time and it pissed her off. In that way, the film is a bit vapid and single-minded. Yet, there are other aspects of the film that seem to be pushing towards a sense of cultural criticism, it just can’t quite find its footing. It feels almost like lesser (much lesser) Larry Cohen, where the message is obscured beneath layers of absurdity. It’s just so absurd, here, that it is almost impossible to decipher what is trying to be said. The is a legitimate reason for this as well. During the production, Fragasso didn’t speak English very well and refused to change any of the dialogue, despite complaints from the crew that the expressions used felt awkward. Fragasso insisted that he knew Americans and how they would speak and so the script would remain unchanged, which is probably for the best. It’s like the cinematic equivalent of a poor google translated sentence, only it lasts 90 mins. One person in the documentary describes the film as being like something written by Aliens pretending to understand humanity. That is as close as I think anyone can ever come to making sense of Troll 2, because it’s a movie that is as foreign as it is familiar.
Scream Factory have been releasing a slew of these double features over the last couple years, and the frequency has only seemed to increase in the last two years. Generally, they are to be approached with hesitation because they are often more novelty releases than anything else. There have, however, been some fantastic releases to be delivered through this effort. Troll/Troll 2 is one of the best. Not only is the transfer on the original film quite impressive (barring a few of the special effect scenes), the package also includes a DVD with the aforementioned Best Worst Movie documentary. This documentary is not without its faults — it could certainly focus a bit more on the production itself and the filming sometimes leaves a bit to be desired — but its still quite a moving look at not only the concept of cult cinema and fandom but also becomes a rather sad depiction of the ’30 seconds of fame’ adage.While it may seem like a stretch to discuss Garbage Pail Kids in the same breath as Troll and Troll 2, it is hardly more of a stretch than Troll 2 is to its predecessor. Garbage Pail Kids is not an Empire film, but it does employee key members from their crew; including Buechler who worked on Garbage Pail Kids as a special effects artist. The film was produced under Atlantic Entertainment Group, who by that time had released quite a few notable films, including 1984, Teen Wolf, and Night of the Comet. While on paper the idea to base an entire film off of a series of parodic playing cards is flimsy, the concept could have been a blast in the right hands. In fact, at Empire, the film would probably have been much more enjoyable. Buechler laments that the producers never really knew what to do with the script, and that he would have made it much more of a horror film. The reverse, however, happened. Rod Amateau, who wrote, directed, and produced, decided to make it into a children’s (arguable) comedy, one that was filled with broad humor, gross gags, and sometimes-unsettling ideas.
Like Troll 2, Garbage Pail Kids is a famous “bad movie,” one review going as far as to call it the “holocaust of cinema.” There are, however, some genuinely legitimate aspects to it. It doesn’t seem fair to completely pan the movie. Rather than an outright failure, it feels more like missed opportunity, akin to a film like Howard the Duck. Buechler’s special effects go a long way in righting a lot of the wrongs. The costumes created (the kids all being played by dwarf actors) by Buechler and his team are rather effective and genuinely unsettling (the clear intent), despite (or maybe because of) their limited mobility. The designs also perfectly mimic the cards unto which they were based, which adds to the overall unsettling aspect of them, since the cards were not designed with movement and live-action filming in mind. There are also moments that are actually disgusting, especially the numerous scenes where Nat Nerd has nervous bouts of urination and numerous scenes involving raw sewage.It’s still not really clear what the ‘kids’ are. To my knowledge, I don’t believe the card series (created by famed comic book artist Art Spiegelman) gave them any sort of origin story, which the filmmakers felt the need to do. The opening scene shows their receptacle (the titular garbage pail) as a spaceship (shot, of course, in a Star Wars-esque manner. So they are aliens but they are also, at one point, just green ooze that inexplicably turns into the children during a cut scene. Regardless of their origin story or really any of the mechanics of their existence, when the film’s plot begins they are currently being imprisoned (for their safety, it is said) within their pail that is kept inside of antiques and oddities store. The store is run by a magician, or wizard (your guess is as good as mine), named Captain Manzini. Helping Manzini at his shop is a young boy named Dodger, who is eventually the one that accidentally releases the kids from their imprisonment, much to the chagrin of Manzini. Why shouldn’t they be let out? Is it because they are terrors that will wreak havoc on the world? Well, not really. It’s because, if free, they may be captured and imprisoned at facility that specializes in locking up the ugly. Where does the film go from there, you may ask. If you were going to say that the only logical step would be to have the kids help Dodger to create clothes that he can use to impress an older woman (named Tangerine) who has aspirations of being a fashion icon, you’d be right. The conflict of the film, then, comes when Tangerine’s boyfriend, a new wave bully named Juice (I have to applaud whoever came up with all the fantastic names), hatches a plan to exploit Dodger and when that is unsuccessful he sets his sights on the kids. Its one of the most convoluted scripts in Hollywood’s history, that it was ever made is a bit of miracle but I am sure that whoever signed the check on this one had trouble finding work after. One aspect of the film that is unsettling is the sexualized relationship between Dodger and Tangerine, highlighting the age difference between them. Given this and the childlike yet nightmarish imagery, Garbage Pail Kids feels like the feverish fantasy of a prepubescent teenaged boy. Along with this dreamlike quality, the film shares another similarity with Troll, in that there is a completely random musical number shoe-horned in the middle of the film. The song is truly atrocious, repetitious, and, like the film itself, entirely too long. Had the film clocked in around 80-85 minutes, this could easily be a very entertaining film, but its overstays its welcome and rehashes the same mediocre jokes, making its 100-plus minute runtime a real chore. Still, the genuine weirdness and silliness of the film still somewhat demands a cursory viewing because it’s nothing if not peculiar. That this movie has a Blu-ray is something to marvel at. There are countries where people barely have access to clean drinking water, and yet we get Garbage Pail Kids in High Definition. This world is a weird, cruel place.
Troll/Troll 2 and Garbage Pail Kids are both available on Blu-ray via Scream Factory