Troll (1986) -***
I had an unexpected mental breakthrough during the first few minutes of my latest viewing of Troll. (No, I said breakthrough. Nearly everyone experiences a mental breakdown, so that wouldnít have been unexpected at all.) There, all over the opening credits, were the names Charles and Richard Band, and the moment I saw them, it all snapped into placeó is this where it started? All those evil-smelling movies that seem to exist for no reason on Earth but to launch a tie-in series of little monster toys patterned after their little toy monsters, the ones that Charles Band continues making to this day even though the desiccated rump of his former media empire no longer has a fraction of the cash-flow or the fan-base necessary to support such tie-insó is this where they all came from, back in Bandís Empire Pictures glory days? Well, noó not exactly. Ghoulies (which I had also forgotten being a Band production) was the real beginning, released a year before Troll, but this movie does represent an important early step in the evolution of what would become the core of Full Moonís brand identity. Budgetarily speaking, Troll was a much bigger deal than Ghoulies, with a higher-profile release and no fewer than three sort-of stars in the cast (four if you count Phil Fondacaro, but Iím not sure how recognizable he would have been in 1986), and its less-than-spectacular financial performance probably has much to do with the scaling back of ambition apparent in Bandís subsequent cute-little-monster films. Troll canít have been a total bomb (after all, somebody thought it was a worthwhile idea to repurpose an originally unrelated Claudio Fragasso fantasy flick as a sequel to it four years later), but I canít recall any of my friends being fool enough to join me in succumbing to its dubious charms during its theatrical run, and the kids I palled around with in 1986 had almost as lousy taste in movies as I did. We were Trollís target audience, so if most of us didnít take the bait, itís hard to imagine who else would have.
Troll makes for an interesting example of how subsequent cultural developments can subtly change the way we relate to an old movie, for its juvenile heroó who consorts with witches and fairies and assorted other fabulous creatures in a magical world unknown to the average personó is named Harry Potter. Actually, there are two Harry Potters in this movie: Harry Potter Sr. (Michael Moriarty, from A Return to Salemís Lot and Q), a somewhat Griswoldian middle-class dad who has just moved his family into a cozy apartment building in San Francisco, and Harry Potter Jr. (The Neverending Storyís Noah Hathaway), his first-born son, who is about the same age as I was the first time I saw Troll. The Potter family is completed by Harry Sr.ís wife, Anne (Shelley Hack, of Time After Time and Death Car on the Freeway), and Harry Jr.ís little sister, Wendy Anne (Jenny Beck). (What do you want to bet thereís an unseen Grandma Wendy somewhere in the background?) This being fundamentally a kidsí movie (with a bit of more grown-up stuff thrown in to keep Mom and Dad amused), itís inevitably a wacky apartment building theyíve moved to, and most of the Pottersí first day is spent meeting the wacky neighbors under wacky circumstances. Right upstairs is Peter Dickinson (Sonny Bono), the obnoxious, aging swinger. The first floor houses Barry Tabor (Gary Sandy), the slightly insane Vietnam vet who would appreciate it if you called him ďDuke,Ē as in his hero, John Wayne. Across the hall is Jeanette Cooper (Julie Louis-Dreyfus), who must have been out at the grocery store when the Eccentricity Fairy stopped by her place; on the other hand, she has a boyfriend (Brad Hall), so sheís ahead of the game if youíre asking me. Somewhere upstairs is Malcolm Mallory (Phil Fondacaro, from Land of the Dead and Willow), college literature professor and former circus midget. And way up on the top floor is Eunice St. Clair (June Lockhart, from She-Wolf of London and The Curse of the Black Widow), who is probably the weirdest of the lot. If the old lady isnít a practicing witch, she sure as hell ought to be.
You know, I believe I spoke too soon about Eunice St. Clairó upon closer examination, the weirdest resident of the building is the shaggy little troll (also Phil Fondacaro) who lives in the basement laundry room. The troll doesnít introduce himself to the Potters along with the rest of the neighbors. No, the privilege of meeting him belongs to Wendy Anne alone, when she chases her rubber ball into his lair and gets abducted by him. After that, the troll assumes the girlís form, and takes her place in the life of the house. He does so in order to gain access to each of the units in turn, at which point events generally follow the pattern established at Peter Dickinsonís place. The troll talks his way into the apartment in the guise of Wendy Anne, resumes his true form, and sticks the occupant with the needle that extends from his magic ring. The victim transforms into some sort of plant pod under the influence of the uncanny poison, and when the pod finishes germinating, what springs forth is not merely an enchanted version of the person it had originally been (although that does happen in the case of people to whom the troll seems more or less favorably disposed), but an entire miniature fairlyland that fills up the apartment, and may or may not link up extradimensionally with the other transfigured units.
Meanwhile, Harry Jr. has noticed that thereís something peculiar about his sister. When he catches a late-night TV broadcast of some tacky 50ís sci-fi movie (one I wish really existed, by the way), it dawns on him that everything would make sense if one posits that Wendy Anne has been replaced by some sort of doppelgangeró maybe even by a Pod Person from the Planet Mars! Naturally, he canít tell his parents something like that, but since moving in, Harry has befriended Eunice St. Clair, and he figures sheís just flaky enough that she might possibly believe him. Not only is old Eunice prepared to listen, sheís able to fill the boy in on whatís really going on. She truly is a witch, you see, and an effectively immortal one at that. The troll from the laundry room is named Turok, and the need for someone to keep watch over him is the reason Eunice lives where she does. Turok also happens to be her husband. Way back in Once Upon a Time days, Turok was a human wizard; Eunice, a terminally bored princess at that point in her life, fell in love with him, and devoted herself to studying the black arts on the theory that guys who cast spells dig chicks who can do the same. What she didnít realize was that the love of her life ran with a bad crowd of fairies, fairies who wanted to wrest control of the world away from both mankind and the fairy majority who wanted to live in peace with humanity. There was a huge war, Turokís side lost, and all the rebel fairies were banished to another universe. Turok, as the leader of the insurgency, was turned into a troll as further punishment. Ever since then, Turok has sought to find a way back into this world for himself and his followers, and for whatever reason, reality is thin enough in this particular spot that he could open a door here if only he could channel enough human lifeforce to enchant the entire building. The good news is that Wendy Anne is almost certainly still alive. If Eunice knows her ex, heís keeping the girl safe in suspended animation on his side of the dimensional divide, awaiting his conquest of the Earth to become the queen of the fairies. Apparently that isnít nearly as good a gig as it sounds, though. Also, Turok can be stopped. Somebody just needs to find the powerful monster that the troll has created to serve as the nucleus of his dominion, and slay it with one of the magical spears Eunice keeps in her apartment. Eunice will try to do it herself, of course, but if she fails, Harry is going to have to act as her understudy.
Honestly, I donít think Troll is nearly as bad as popular consensus would have it. It sure isnít good, you understand, but itís good fun for the most part, in stark contrast to a lot of what Band would give us in a similar vein later on. Iím as amused as I am confused by its frequent shifts of mood from goofball comedy to fantasy adventure to sappy kid-stuff drama, and by its willingness to go off in some deeply bizarre directions. Seriously, how many kidsí movies can you think of that have swingers in them? I personally suspect that this is the only one in the English language. And maybe even weirder than that is the relationship that develops between Professor Mallory and Turok. Remember, this is the villain weíre talking about. But when he meets Mallory (the troll is posing as Wendy Anne at the time), he concludes immediately that the tiny and strangely formed man must be an elf, and the two become fast friends. Thereís even a meeting-the-parents scene played for comedy on the basis of the elder Pottersí natural expectation that their daughterís new pal is going to be another child, rather than an adult dwarf. (Itís a small thing, but one of the regrettably few times when the humor in Troll works exactly the way itís supposed to comes when Anne comes out from the kitchen with a glass of chocolate milk at the ready, then attempts to pass it off as having been meant for herself while her husband mixes Malcolm a gin and tonic.) Further muddying the waters of villainy, when Turok eventually pays his inevitable visit to Malcolmís flat, he expressly tailors the transformation he works upon it to a childhood fantasy the professor had told him about earlier, and cures Malloryís leukemia in the bargain! Combined with the role Turok plays in his own defeat during the climax, it makes you wonder whether youíre looking at an attempt to give the bad guy some complexity of character (in defiance of all expectations for a movie of this sort) or at fossilized bits of an earlier screenplay draft with the troll as the hero. Either way, itís not normal, and thatís kind of cool. I also have to say that the troll suit is pretty impressive, especially in comparison to the quality of the creature effects otherwise; I can only assume that Bandís monster-makers spent all of their money on the main costume, leaving them to get by with some amazingly awful hand-puppets for the bulk of Turokís goblin army. Even the worst of the latter are a step up from the demon puppets in Rock Ďní Roll Nightmare, but thatís about the faintest praise one could hope to be damned with. The extended bit where they all assemble in their little fairy groves and sing really defies description, and you for damn sure donít want to miss it. Besides, this much can be said for Troll if nothing else: at no point does it ask us to believe that a street corner outside of Bucharest is really downtown San Francisco!