Friday, August 30, 2013

Trollhunter

directed by André Øvredal
starring Otto Jespersen and Hans Morten Hansen
Filmkameratene A/S, October 29, 2010, 103 Minutes
Rated PG-13

A group of students investigates a series of mysterious bear killings, but learns there are much more dangerous things going on. They start to follow a mysterious hunter, learning that he is actually a troll hunter.

Of late, I have been less than impressed with the offerings that the American horror market has released. Relying mostly on jump-scares and tired clichés (really, how many vengeful ghost or creepy little kid movies can there be?) these films have been lackluster at best. So, I turned my sights on the foreign horror market, and I have not been disappointed. The Scandinavians in particular have really brought their A-Game to horror and Trollhunter is a prime example of this. While not exactly horror, it’s more of what one might call a dark comedy (something like Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland), this film really delivers.

In particular what Øvredal and his cast and crew have done is reinvigorate the tired cinéma vérité style. Horror films done with handheld cameras on flimsy premises (I’m looking at you The Last Exorcism and Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield) have done more damage to what is a venerable and often very effective genre trick. Don’t believe me? Watch 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust or even 1990’s The Blair Witch Project (a film, which in my mind, is severely underrated, mostly due to the hype that surrounded its initial release). These films show exactly what can be done when the vérité style is taken seriously, and is not reduced to a “gimmick” to sell tickets (I’m still looking at you The Last Exorcism). Trollhunter takes its cues from Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project and takes its handheld camera shooting very seriously, and as such, it works wonderfully and is integrated very organically into the storytelling.

Unlike other films (I’m looking at you Cloverfield) the handheld camera feels like it should be there and it delivers a degree of intimacy and authenticity to an otherwise fantastic idea. This also brings a feel of truth to the whole of the film, even the “non-action” scenes where we are getting back-story or mythology. Typically such scenes are handled with ham-fisted exposition, but Øvredal integrates the mundane with the amazing so well that hearing about troll lore is as fascinating as seeing the trolls in action. It is a very well-balanced pairing of subtle humor with physical tension, which results in the film’s striking naturalness.

This naturalness is helped, to a large degree, by Otto Jespersen’s stellar portrayal as Hans the weary government-endorsed trollhunter. Jespersen carries the film and much of the dry humor is found in Hans’ being fed up with the endless bureaucracy surrounding his job since reams of paperwork need to be filed after each successful hunt. Jespersen’s humor is counterpointed by Hans Morten Hansen’s portrayal of Finn, the put-upon bureaucrat from the Norwegian government’s Troll Security Agency to whom Hans answers. The stick-up-his-ass boss vs. the savvy and frustrated employee, while admittedly clichéd, works so well because of the outrageousness of the field in which Finn and Hans work.

Filmed on a shoestring (at least by Hollywood budget standards), Trollhunter is a film that offers up a fantastical premise and then delivers in spades on that promise. Most horror/monster films have the “Monster Problem” wherein the ambiguity and suspense surrounding the monster at the beginning of the film is dissipated once the creature is revealed. Greater directors than Øvredal have struggled and failed in this respect, and only a few have succeeded (Spielberg and Jaws comes to mind as does Ridley Scott and the xenomorph in the original Alien film). Øvredal manages to avoid the “Monster Problem” (chiefly, I believe) to the use of the vérité format) and his trolls are spectacular. They are fully integrated into the film and the actors never look like they are reacting to a green screen or tennis ball on a stick (which they almost surely are). The “Monster Problem” is further avoided by having a pretty standard creature rather than something hyper-fantastical (the spider-thing in It jumps to mind). As well as having a rich and already established lore, Scandinavian trolls have already been fully visualized through the works of such artists as John Bauer and Theodore Kittelsen. Perhaps most spectacularly, this vision is achieved in the final scenes when Hans and his tag-a-long film crew head into the mountains of Norway to find a Jötnar—a gigantic mountain troll well over 600 feet tall. The special effects here are simply amazing and worth the price of admission.

Overall, I highly recommend this film. The beginning drags on a bit, but once it gets going it really gets going.

Official Trailer
Trollhunter at IMDb

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