Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jun 15, 2011 2:12 pm 
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Hell is other people -- sometimes

The audience I watched TrollHunter with almost completely ruined it for me. There were brief moments when I had a good time and got into it, but much of the time snide whispers and comments and deprecating giggles took away any sense of being absorbed in the film. In the first fifteen seconds or so, somebody near me quite clearly said, "Oh, Blair Witch Project!" and we, or rather they, were off and running.

Yes, TrollHunter uses the faux-crude methods of Blair Witch Project, as well as George Romero's Diary of the Dead, Matt Reeves' Cloverfield, and a number of other movies: it's a mock-doc, a film that purports to consist entirely of found footage of amateur videos made by people who ran afoul of monsters or disasters and were never seen since. Only the videos survived. You know from the start this is only a convention. But when it's working you forget that and get carried away by the experience. Or you do if the audience shuts up and lets you.

When I saw Blair Witch Project as it first opened in 1999 the audience was also an influence, but the other way around. The auditorium was packed, the way it was when I saw Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, with rapt and curious people. They stood in the back behind the seats and squatted in the aisles. The feeling was one of, "Let's see this thing everybody's talking about, and find out why there's all this fuss." The Blair Witch Project audience made me see that it was clever and that it worked. Its ingenious but simple devices were so clever a movie made on a shoestring became a blockbuster. It made you keep thinking it could be real footage. Or almost.

That was something like what Reeves was trying for with Cloverfield, except that times had changed; it was a few years later. The critics generally dumped on Cloverfield. However, there was a good-sized audience when I saw it and they paid attention and I came out having thoroughly enjoyed myself. I knew the people in the film were obnoxious. Reeves put together a different kind of show than Blair Witch, pulling out more technical stops, vastly jacking up the energy level. The monsters were standard issue but the speed and anxiety levels were intoxicating. It helped that I happened to have read only one review of the film, by David Edelstein in New York Magazine, and it was a very enthusiastic one.

TrollHunter is nothing much like Blair Witch Project, but it takes us back to that rigorously simple technical level. Three college students in Norway get onto a news story about the mysterious deaths of a number of geographically scattered big brown bears somewhere in the wintry north country. There's talk of a dodgy "poacher" who may be killing he bears. The kids, Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud), a reporter; Joanna, a girl with the mike boom (Johanna Mørck); and Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen), the mostly unseen photographer, are totally skeptical -- then less so and more involved and scared. The kids begin stalking this tall, seedy guy with the deep voice, beatup Land Rover, and worn out trailer. The "poacher." Of course, he turns out to be the troll hunter (the excellent Otto Jespersen) or Trolljegeren, whose given name, it develops, is Hans. And when Hans the Trolljegeren allows the students to come close to him and see what he's up to, they also get to see trolls. So do we. First just glimpses, then more, always accompanied by powerful, appalling sounds that are a chaotic mixture of suffering and menace.

TrollHunter's technology gradually gets a bit more Cloverfield-ish as we go along as the trolls begin to appear in more than glimpses, becoming very slowly more and more impressive till, at the end, there's a giant that's awesome and terrifying, towering over the mountain landscape. The movie is obviously tongue in cheek at times. But you were not meant to be giggling all the way through as my audience was. In fact you're supposed to be skeptical at first like the students but then more and more involved -- scared, awed, perhaps a bit enchanted, because there is something magical and haunting about the giant mythical creatures. The whole idea of trolls leads us into a different place in culture and time from, say, the standard issue alien monsters in J.J. Abrams' Super 8, or even the more fully conceived but still convention-driven ones of Aliens or District 9. Trolls come from ancient folklore. An offshoot of pagan myth, evidently: one of their aspects is they can smell the blood and sweat of a Christian. You don't want that to happen. The kids have to strip and wash and rub their bodies with troll gunk so trolls can't catch their scent. But if they're Christian believers, even that may not work. Another thing: in bright sunlight tolls may turn to stone, or explode.

Some of that may sound silly, and parts of TrollHunter are silly. But it has the courage of its traditions. The essence of the story, like that of Blair Witch, is that we may get pushed to consider there are things we don't understand. As with some sci-fi stories, there is also an element of conspiracy here, because the troll hunter works for the government, and part of his job is to cover up. It's a government secret, perhaps an embarrassing one, that there are such creatures. There's tragedy too. The trolls, who exist in rich variety, or did, are dwindling in numbers, decimated by government thinning-out. They're an endangered species. And they suffer when they die, sometimes horribly. Hans suffers with them. He's also fed up with being overworked, one of the main reasons he breaks the rules and allows the young crew to film him.

The reason why such movies can work is that while multi-million-dollar Hollywood spectaculars make you "believe" by the strength of their state-of-the art editing and eye-popping special effects, these ones seem more real because "reality" isn't a special effect and tends to be rather clunky. The clunkier the video or pseudo-video is, the more we feel like a real person was there filming a real event. Jump cuts and jumpy camera, images shot with only a flashlight, green night vision camera shots, all contribute to an effect that, even with the annoying audience, made me feel I was following these people around. The climactic finale (with its abrupt, mysterious and troubling ending) was very grand. The whole film is in rich, resonant Norwegian -- a language that takes us much closer to Anglo-Saxon, whose poetry sings of sea monsters and battles with dragons. The harsh far north scenery of this Norwegian film has a raw, exotic beauty; it provides a rich visual language to mitigate the deliberately ugly camerawork.

TrollHunter was largely ruined for me but it seemed like it could be an original example of the cinematic literature of modern people clashing with mythical creatures. If you like this sort of thing you should go see it. Just watch out where. Don't be distracted by gigglers. Peter Debruge of Variety calls this movie an "enormously entertaining chiller," and I think he might be right. I wish I could have enjoyed it undistracted. As Sartre once said, hell is other people -- sometimes anyway, when they're crowding the seats around you with distracting attitude.

TrollHunter debuted in the US at Sundance in January, and opened in US cinemas Jun 10th. It comes to the UK September 9. 2011.

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