'Troll 2' to 'The Disaster Artist': Inside the Bad Movie Renaissance

Troll 2
Michael Stephenson, the child star of "Troll 2," is pictured on the set of the 1990 cult horror film. Stephenson is flanked by two actors from the film in goblin costumes. Bruce Stephenson

Updated | On April 11, 2006, George Hardy woke up and discovered he was a cult film star.

This was odd for a few reasons: Hardy is a dentist living in Alexander City, Alabama; he has no serious acting experience; and he hadn't appeared in a movie in more than a decade. But that movie—an outrageously amateurish horror disaster called Troll 2 (1990), which features Hardy in a starring role—had built up a remarkable cult following on the internet.

Hardy learned this when a reporter from Furman University's school paper called to ask if he'd be attending the Troll 2 cast reunion that week. Cast reunion? Hardy was bewildered. "If you don't believe me, go to IMDB," the journalist said.

Hardy did, and he found that there would indeed be a reunion in two days, on April 13, in Provo, Utah. "I said to myself, 'I gotta do this.' Spent $750 on a flight. Jumped on a plane. And it was the first screening ever of Troll 2 on the big screen."

"Big screen" was misleading. The film was projected on a brick wall in an abandoned building by a Troll 2 obsessive. And yet, says Hardy, "when the lights came on, I got mobbed for autographs. I thought, What in the world is going on?"

That was more than a decade ago—and Hardy's first inkling that the low-budget movie he starred in decades ago had found an audience beyond the stoned teens who stumbled upon it on TV late at night. But it's a moment he finds himself thinking about a lot lately, ever since last year's The Disaster Artist—which recounts the tumultuous making of 2003's amateur classic The Room—brought the glory of so-bad-they're-good movies to the forefront of mainstream pop culture.

Belovedly bad movies are enjoying a renaissance in recent months, thanks to James Franco's successful comedic drama. Films like Troll 2 and The Room (which was famously declared "the Citizen Kane of bad movies") were once the in-jokes of film nerds and internet obsessives. Now they're becoming as embedded in pop culture as, well, genuinely great movies.

Once a Hollywood pariah, Room director Tommy Wiseau has been making high-profile appearances on late-night TV and at the Golden Globes, where James Franco took home the best actor award for his performance as the bizarro, greasy-haired filmmaker. (The Disaster Artist received some Oscar buzz, too, but was largely shut out of nominations the same month Franco was accused of sexual misconduct by numerous women.)

Such notoriety has also reawakened the battle for the gold in the Olympics of terrible moviemaking. "I've seen a lot of other bad movies," says Jason Wright, a novelist and public speaker who played a supporting role in Troll 2 when he was a teenager. "I don't think there's anything that's within 1,200 miles of the pure awfulness of Troll 2. Maybe we'll be talking about The Room in 25 years, but I doubt it."

Hardy is more diplomatic. In December, he went to see The Disaster Artist in Birmingham, AL, and was recognized by several Troll 2 fans at the theater. He even ran into Daniel Emery Taylor, the child actor of 1989's critically panned The Return of Swamp Thing, and took a grinning selfie in front of the movie awning.

"I resonated deeply with what was going on in The Disaster Artist," says Hardy, who still acts in the occasional low-budget flick. "There is a sense of sadness around both films. It's funny, but sad at the same time." He first saw The Room circa 2009, when Troll 2's cult appeal was receiving global recognition. "The acting is so bad in the film," he says, then concedes, "You could say the same thing about Troll 2."

Even Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), arguably the granddaddy of all lovably crappy movies, received a publicity boost recently, when actor Conrad Brooks died at 86. Plan 9 was directed by prolific low-budget maestro Ed Wood. In 1980, critic Michael Medved declared it the "worst film ever made." (Wood, like Wiseau, eventually became the subject of his own acclaimed film tribute, Tim Burton's Ed Wood.)

But Plan 9's cult popularity surged long before the internet provided a space for bad-movie junkies to find one another. Troll 2 solidified its oddball fan base in the early 2000s and inadvertently helped establish the blueprint for The Room's remarkably obsessive fan base.

The origin story behind Troll 2 is sacred scripture for bad movie devotees. The film was dreamed up by an eccentric Italian filmmaker, Claudio Fragasso, who wrote the script in broken English and reportedly refused to let his English-speaking actors correct the awkward-sounding lines. He shot the film in Utah in 1989, relying largely on local residents like Hardy, who was handed a lead partwith no prior acting experience. (One "actor" filmed his part while on leave from a nearby psychiatric hospital; he was a patient.)

The plot would require large quantities of weed to comprehend fully, but in brief, Troll 2 is about a young boy whose family relocates to a sinister town overrun by grotesque "vegetarian" goblins who transform humans into plants before devouring them. The boy is aided by visions of his dead grandpa, who warns him about the goblins' evil intentions. The movie, by the way, has absolutely nothing to do with 1986's Troll, or trolls in general; the distributor, MGM, simply titled it Troll 2 as a cheap marketing ploy.

George Hardy
George Hardy poses with Daniel Emery Taylor at a screening of "The Disaster Artist" in December. George Hardy

It's difficult to explain why the resulting train wreck is so revelatory. The visual effects are uproariously goofy, with goblins wearing what look to be Halloween costumes. The insane plot is a hoot to devour in group settings. And the remarkably amateurish overacting produces unintended comedy. One particular line delivery, in which a terrified teen character shouts, "Oh my God!"—stretching out the word "God" to four agonizing seconds—has become a popular internet meme.

Yet in a lengthy email to Newsweek, Fragasso insists his movie has been misunderstood; it was meant to be a comedy. "I wanted to make people laugh, and I succeeded," he says. The Room, he maintains, "has nothing in common with my film." (Indeed, The Room is more of a melodrama whose plot revolves around a love triangle. And Wiseau, unlike Fragasso, had a seemingly bottomless budget, thanks to his own mysterious wealth.)

But both films have amassed obsessive followings beyond what their creators could have imagined, spawning a cottage industry of memes, merchandise and midnight screenings. Perhaps the appeal is that these movies make filmmaking seem accessible. "I think people see a horrible film like Troll 2 and, in a weird way, it opens doors," says Wright. "I've met people who were inspired to get into filmmaking because of Troll 2. It's hard to watch Star Wars and think, 'I can do that.' But I promise people watch Troll 2 and think, 'I can do that—and better!'"

Michael Paul Stephenson, the child star of Troll 2, first saw the finished movie when his parents gave him the VHS tape as a Christmas present. For years, he was deeply embarrassed by its badness, especially when it began to appear frequently on late-night HBO programming. "Every Sunday, I would pull out my newspaper's TV guide and hope that I wouldn't find Troll 2 listed," he says. Instead of the four possible stars that ran under reviews, there would be "a little icon of a turkey," signifying the worst possible rating from critics.

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Actors get in costume behind the scenes of the film "Troll 2" in 1989. Bruce Stephenson

But as an adult, in the mid-2000s, Stephenson began getting messages from young fans on Myspace. "They would send photos of Troll 2 parties they had in a basement or somewhere. My first thought was, Why? This movie should never be spoken about again."

Eventually, though, Stephenson embraced his childhood humiliation, and in 2009 he directed the documentary Best Worst Movie, which traces Troll 2's meteoric rise from low-budget mess to cult classic. In the film, a pair of hardcore fans describe their response upon meeting a Troll 2 virgin: "No matter what you're doing, you drop what you're doing—we're watching it now."

Recently, Stephenson went to see The Disaster Artist with his wife and found it to be an emotional experience. "I was moved by it," he says. "It felt as though it was rooted in love."

Related: The Room star Greg Sestero talks The Disaster Artist

Numerous Troll 2 cast members say that the press tour Wiseau and Room actor Greg Sestero recently did for The Disaster Artist reminds them of the publicity they did years ago for Best Worst Movie. In both instances, there is some sadness, in the spectacle of once hopeful actors realizing they have made a cinematic punch line. But there is joy there, too, in the discovery that pleasure has been provided, as well as history made.

"People will talk about Troll 2 and The Room forever," Hardy says with genuine pride.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the child actor from The Return of the Swamp Thing. He is Daniel Emery Taylor.