This faux-documentary struggles to balance character, plot and visuals in a hauntingly-imagined tale of modern-day trolls in Norway.
Intro by Phil
In Scandinavian folklore, trolls are secretive, otherworldly beings. They’re powerful and grotesque, dangerous but dim-witted, with lanky hair and gargantuan noses. They frequently cross paths with naive humans who wander into places they shouldn’t travel. Unlike Bigfoot or Chupacabra, trolls traditionally can speak, and for Nordic storytellers, they were incredibly versatile characters, used to explain everything from baby snatching to Christian persecution. They’re so delicately linked to nature that sunlight turns them to stone – of course, that makes them creatures of the night.
Oddly enough, the closest thing to a troll in modern mythology isn’t some animalistic half-man/half-beast, but a ghost. If Norwegian writer/director André Øvredal’s eerie film Trollhunter were set in America – a nation curiously obsessed with secular versions of the afterlife – it would be filled with black-timber forests and claustrophobic haunted houses. Instead, he borrows liberally from the ancient elements of his homeland and troll mythology to show a ghost hunt across the soggy, haunting wilds of Norway.
The film opens with a small group of university students – Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud), Johanna (Johanna Mørck) and Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen) – as they investigate reports of a suspected bear poacher in one of Norway’s most remote regions. Using cameras to document their investigation (and explain the ominous “found footage” prologue), the group interviews locals and catches wind of a mysterious hunter, Hans (Otto Jespersen), who has been spotted at the poaching sites. Ringleader Thomas convinces the others to relentlessly follow the hunter across the countryside, secretly filming him from afar and eventually ambushing him with direct questions. When Hans enters a barricaded area at night, the crew traces his steps and comes face-to-face-to-face with a three-headed troll. Following a shaky-cam encounter and the troll’s subsequent death by UV-ray gun – the first of many to come – Hans agrees to let the students tag along as he struggles to control a massive string of troll outbreaks. He becomes the Norwegian equivalent of Egon Spengler in Ghostbusters, keeping the monsters contained while giving the shocked students a dry, laconic introduction to the differences between troll mythology and reality.
Øvredal isn’t content to simply let Trollhunter regurgitate stories from his childhood. In stark contrast to the lumbering trolls, his script uses the modern equivalent of fairy tales – conspiracy theories – to fuel a faux-documentary about government cover ups, with a touch of rough-hewn local flavor in the form of Hans’ weary mountain/government man. The found footage conceit has become tiresome since The Blair Witch Project first used it in 1999, but as shown by Paranormal Activity, it can be a curious way to inject life into a dated, potentially defanged legend. Øvredal’s trolls are giant, hulking and wrathful – definitely not stocking stuffers with neon-hued hair. But the style also has a tendency to be frantic or distracting, and for some small-budget films (Trollhunter was made for roughly U.S. $3.4 million), it’s a superficial fix for a weak story.
Given the richness of Øvredal’s source material, Trollhunter has the potential to put a new spin on monster movie conventions. Then why do we keep calling the film a ghost story? It goes a bit deeper than our penchant for defining films as everything but the most obvious genre: Ghost stories are always about what’s real and what’s imagined, what’s proven fact and what’s blind faith. Ghosts, like trolls, represent a threat to Christians and their beliefs: By denying the existence of secular mythological beings, religious types call into question Biblical truths that say the resurrected Jesus is somehow different than a ghost. Maybe that’s why Americans (and Christians of every nationality) are enamored with fairy tales and ghost stories – religious and secular beliefs aren’t totally incompatible when Christian-munching trolls bear a striking resemblance to Goliath, right? The hunt is on.
Wanna watch? Trollhunter is on Netflix Instant and Xfinity On Demand. In Norwegian with subtitles.
Chris: I’m going to change it up a bit… Hey Phil, give me a tweet, less than 140 characters, on your first impression of Trollhunter. GO!
Phil: Stupid arbitrary character limits… But I guess we can practice brevity on occasion, and it’s relatively fitting for a grassroots, bare-bones offering like Trollhunter. I can hardly do the film justice in 140 characters, so I’ll give you 500: I’m a sucker for foreign horror flicks. They deal with legends and fears that aren’t wholly American, and seeing what makes entire other nations squirm is eye opening, even if the experience doesn’t match my conception of horror. I dug the troll mythology and Hans’ gruff, eccentric G-man, but the scares were relatively non-existent. Also, I’ve just about had my fill of the found footage sub-genre, and given how gorgeous the Norwegian backdrop is, the film would’ve benefited from landscape porn in the vein of Terrence Malick. Sadly, the camera is always bouncing around in the backseat of a car or some screaming kid’s hand. Alright, Chris – let’s have your Trollhunter tweet.
Chris: Ha ha ha! Hardly 140, but I know what you mean about doing it justice. Here is my actual tweet: “Norwegians, trolls, shoddy mockumentaries, and fairy tales retold. Trollhunter is a beautiful film that captured my imagination. Hot damn!!!” Exactly 140! Now that I’ve given you a tweet, I would have to agree. The mockumentary/found footage thing is getting pretty old. Again, I agree and think that the scenery helps a little bit if it weren’t for the shaky camera bouncing all around. The one thing I would say is that this film did it really well. I wasn’t overly distracted by Thomas constantly walking around in front of the lens. I loved the language and the ghost story and the mountain man and his generosity. I was pretty pleased overall. I also really enjoyed the government conspiracy aspect. I know that it feels very real as an American who constantly hears about conspiracies, and I can only imagine that it has the same impact in Norway. What do you think?
Phil: Conspiracy theories are so universal and silly that combining them with traditional folktales only makes sense for a daring film. The government cover-up plotline was an effective way to grab my attention in the lengthy (but necessary) scenes between monster mayhem, and learning about the various troll species was like watching a Nat Geo wildlife documentary. There were even hints at the absurdity of a conspiracy to hide trolls: In a touch of Spenglerian black humor, Hans dead-pans a dismissal of all fairy tales and bedtime stories, including ones with trolls. (As an aside, I love how you call him generous. That fits him perfectly.) Beyond the plot, some of the film’s internal logic was fuzzy – why do the trolls attack and eat humans if charcoal and rocks are like foie gras with cocaine? – and a handful of monster scenes fell flat. But it was a well-done film, with just enough intrigue and momentum to keep it rolling along. When I allowed myself to enjoy the hunt and not expect shocking scares, I enjoyed it much more. Øvredal knew where he was going and didn’t mince words getting there.
I hate to beat a calcified troll, but a major downside of found footage is how difficult the device makes it to get a feel for character. The students are drawn as crudely as possible, and at times, it became distracting. Aside from Thomas’ constant prodding, I didn’t understand why any of them were so committed to stalking an accused bear poacher like Hans. As a journalist, I see how the hunter’s personality would make him an intriguing individual, but the students became little more than ciphers for his story, and I hardly bought his early reasons for exposing the troll-hiding conspiracy. Although we discover deeper motives by the end, at that point, I was no longer curious as to why these characters did what they did. More importantly, though, I didn’t care if they were harmed, which is arguably what sets good films apart from great ones. Like you tweeted, Chris, Trollhunter captured my imagination, but it lacked a deeper impact. For you, does it pass one all-important test: would you buy it?
Chris: Ah yes, it’s about time we get to this… Our readers should know two things about me: 1) I have a decent movie collection (Phil: Decent is an understatement – it’s fucking obscene.) and 2) I only buy a movie if I know I will watch it again. I would have to say that I will be buying Trollhunter very soon. A good part of this is due to enjoying the dialogue, which is in the beautiful language that is Norwegian. I also recognize that the movie feeds my fascination for Norway, what with it being my heritage and all. But I would be a liar if you didn’t admit that this movie was, in fact, a really fun watch for me. Fun and a little flat, but that is something I can get past when I already want to watch this movie again, and I first saw it a few weeks ago. What do you think – would you buy it?
Phil: It’d have to be in the $5 bin at Walmart, and even then I might replace my busted copy of Super Troopers instead. Trollhunter just never delivered a total package of inventiveness, fantasy, emotion and humanity – some aspects are highlighted subtly, while others are discarded when convenient. The promising Christianity elements only mattered for the cameraman – easily the most disposable character – although a general sense of religious apathy gave it a distinctly European feel. And as much as I can blame the cinematography for the film’s flaws, I can’t disregard a 2009 feature that used found footage organically: District 9, a masterful sci-fi flick about alien refugees facing modern apartheid in South Africa. I bought that DVD the day it came out. Trollhunter isn’t on the same level.
Phil: 2 – Likeable for being a flawed but damn good entertainment
Chris: 3 – Go and buy that shit now!