film review : Troll Hunter

Every so often, a foreign genre film finds its way to American shores (usually via bootleg file-sharing) that builds up such an underground buzz about it that it can’t help but bleed over into the mainstream. Audition was one such film, kicking off the “Asian horror” invasion (in quotations because very few of said films, including the above example, are strictly horror, regardless of what people call them). Europe, refusing to be dethroned as the premier exporter of fright flicks, fired back with the likes of Let the Right One In, Antichrist, A Serbian Film, and now, Troll Hunter. These foreign films usually resonate with American audiences for one of two reasons: either they present sex and violence with an extremity that shocks even our usually robust sensibilities (Read: America loves it some gore and tits), or they deliver a story and presentation that is remarkably novel and fresh. Troll Hunter is very much the later. While its mockumentary style may be familiar to US viewers by now, rarely, if ever, has it been used to such successful effect. And as much as the film fits into horror genre, its roots lie equally in the Spielbergian tradition of adventure films (albeit sans Spielberg’s positively fucking saccharine preoccupations), which is likely the source of its crossover appeal. Director/writer André Øvredal takes a familiar type of film and cleverly re-packages it with the “day in the life” portrayal of a blue-collar monster hunter, ups the scare factor significantly and offers up truly unique CGI creations that are culturally, not to mention visually, alien to us.

Troll Hunter opens with three college filmmakers, Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud), Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen) and Johanna (Johanna Mørck) setting out to make a documentary about a supposed bear poacher operating in the Norwegian countryside. Why in god’s name anyone would want to watch, let alone make a film about some lone nut ventilating bear carcasses with shotgun slugs is beyond me, but this is all really just a vehicle to get the characters to track down the supposed poacher, an aloof man named Hans (Otto Jespersen). After a handful of unsuccessful attempts to speak with him, the students follow Hans into the woods, expecting to catch him red handed on camera. Instead, they encounter him bolting between trees, screaming “Troll!”, as he is pursued by an unseen giant. After the danger has passed, the trio convince Hans to open up about his secretive profession, that of a government-sanctioned troll exterminator. The students elect to follow Hans as he goes about his duties to expose the secret of the trolls to the public, as well as document and honor the national hero they come to view Hans as.

Otto Jespersen’s portrayal of Hans could very well be the film’s greatest asset. I was quite surprised after seeing his solemn and stoic role here to discover that, in his native Norway, he’s primarily known as a comedian. Then again, looking back on the film, many of the biggest laughs come courtesy of Jespersen’s ultra-dry delivery (his response to the question of whether or not a Muslim would have as much to fear as a Christian in the presence of a troll is priceless). Later on in the film, Jespersen delivers a haunting recollection of being forced to massacre a pack of trolls pups with all the remorse and disgust of Vietnam vet. This informs the final troll hunt in a particularly melancholic way, with Hans venturing off not to do battle with a hated foe, but to reluctantly put down a suffering animal. Outside of Jespersen, the three young actors playing the student filmmakers are also quite good, but thematically they exist more as a plot device than characters, and they resonate accordingly. Of note, though, is Tomas Alf Larsen’s very believable nervous breakdown in the troll cave, which does allow his character to rise above the rest, however briefly, before he exits the film (in a particularly frightening fashion). It’s a great Lovecraftian moment where his mind snaps under not only fear of death, but the strain of having to stare these eldritch creatures in the eye.

Now, let’s get down to brass tacks and talk trolls. With a budget of roughly $3 million USD, bringing these creatures to life was a tall order. I’m glad to report that they are, in fact, incredible to behold when finally revealed. How this film and others of similar scope and budgetary limitations (Monsters, for example) yield such potent SFX results, while bigger productions throw mountains of cash into their CGI and routinely come up short (i.e. produce pixelated shite) is forever beyond me. Here, the design of the trolls should work against their believability, appearing exactly as they are represented in classic Norwegian folktales and art. It’s as if they stepped right out of a Bauer painting, with misshapen bodies, bulbous noses and the like. Had they been dropped in the middle of a city to wreak havok, viewers’ minds would likely have rejected the image of these things in action. But rampaging across the snow-covered countryside like an Enslaved song made manifest, It syncs up so well with myth and a romanticized vision of Norway that you buy into it completely. Shown first with fleeting glimpses in night vision, then slowly revealed with greater clarity as the film goes along, the trolls become more impressive with each appearance until the last, which is truly godlike in size and genuinely awe-inspiring. Few films could hope to stage a scene as thrilling as the finale here, with the massive troll in pursuit of Hans’ spike-covered jeep, with its approach (in a nice nod to Jurassic Park) shown via the side view mirror.

It seems that the hype surrounding Troll Hunter has paid off, as Chris Columbus’ production company has snapped up the rights for a remake just days into its official North American release, with Columbus himself in the director’s chair. “Why?”, I feel compelled to ask. “C.R.E.A.M.”, Hollywood replies. Even if I didn’t object to tampering with something so intrinsically Norwegian and giving it the standard Hollywood blandification treatment, I still have to question Columbus at the helm (Harry Potter fans, I can already hear your protestations, but you can stop now, because your opinions don’t count. Ever). Can’t we pull del Toro off that Pacific Rim movie he didn’t ask to make and we didn’t ask to see, and let him sink his teeth into this? Done smartly and with care, it could be worthwhile. But likely it will be executed with all the sophistication and attention to detail a crayon drawing done by a retarded child depicting a half-remembered fever dream might exhibit, and it doesn’t really matter. No matter how bad said remake turns out to be, it can’t a take away from how remarkably entertaining Øvredal’s original is. It successfully straddles the line between horror and action-adventure, gives us an instantly iconic hero in Hans, and showcases some beautifully strange creatures. Most importantly, it inspires the kind of childlike wonder in its viewers that so very few films are capable of. And childlike is the operant word here, as this is one of the few horror films suitable for both young and old (on the upper end of PG-13, so your mileage may very). If you happen to be the filthy-breeder-type, bring the whole brood, so long as you think they can stomach a handful of intense scares and the occasional exploded troll (you didn’t raise a bunch of pussies, right?). You’re all in for one hell of a ride, not to mention what is easily one of the finest monster movies of the modern era.

– Adam Rosina

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