On paper, Troll Hunter would have to be the dumbest imaginable idea for a film, using the laziest and most cliche-ridden subgenre possible – found-footage. A film crew follows a man who hunts trolls, capturing the whole mess on shaky cam. It looked promising when the trailer came out with decent special effects, but the film itself is surprisingly captivating. Norse mythology describes the troll as an ancient creature dwelling in the mountains and other wild places, eating rocks and living in fear of daylight and lightning. Troll Hunter has a tremendous amount of fun with these myths, how such fables and classic monsters are translated into contemporary film, and with the found-footage genre itself. It manages an earnest tone while taking nothing about itself seriously. The end product is at turns hilarious, tense, and fantastically stupid. As the film begins, we are informed that the film is an edited version of many hours of tape that was sent to authorities for verification. “They concluded it was authentic.”
A film crew from a local university is investigating recent bear killings; a couple were killed under unusual circumstances, and they want to learn why. Flimsy explanation, but whatever – they follow one guy identified as a poacher, a grim, reclusive man who is on the trail of something. After following him into the forest, the crew discovers what he is after as he sprints out of a thicket screaming “TROLL!”
The legends regarding trolls agree on a few basic ideas, and the film occasionally references these; trolls are usually isolated to mountains or caves, keeping to shadows and darkness. They fear the sun, and if exposed they will turn to stone and/or crack to pieces. They despise church bells and thirst for Christian blood, and have some problem with goats. Not my area of expertise, mind, but that is the gist. One of the pleasures of contemporary science fiction or monster movies are the awkward attempts to explain the myths. In Blade, vampires explode on contact with silver bullets as an ‘anaphylactic reaction’. Well, in Troll Hunter, the primary weapon against the trolls are UV lights because they cannot metabolize vitamin D. So their entire body calcifies. So… hypervitaminosis D causes one to ossify or explode. It gets better – their fear of lightning becomes an aversion to electricity. The troll hunter blithely points to some power lines, “These are electric fences for the trolls.” An engineer who manages the grid for that region wonders why power lines are run in a circle, providing electricity to nowhere. Even the Christian angle comes into use as a newly recruited cameraman admits to being Muslim, and the others ask the troll hunter if this is a problem. “I don’t know, we’ll try it and see what happens.” And the hunter uses hymns on loudspeaker as a lure. Otto Jespersen, the eponymous troll hunter, plays his role with the world-weary air of a jaded veteran. The pay is shit, there is no overtime, and he has had enough of managing Norway’s troll population. The tongue is firmly in cheek throughout this aggressively amusing film, and it helps that a smirk is never allowed.
Apart from having fun with mythology, Troll Hunter plays with an interesting subtext regarding preservation of wilderness. Part of the problem involves encroachment of people into previously wild territory; the trolls must be kept isolated or they will wreak havoc with the rural population. They do not breed prodigiously, but it is impossible to keep track of them all. Despite being the size of buildings, they seem to melt away with daylight. Troll Hunter has fun with religions in general; interestingly Christians are in the minority here, which is fortunate as they would be targeted. Likewise the European melting pot (which never exactly melted anyway) becomes a joke in itself. In order to feed the conspiracy to keep trolls a secret, bears are occasionally killed to provide an explanation for their carnage. So when a truck labeled “Polish Paint Service” rolls up with a bear, it stands to reason that they brought in a bear from a zoo that is normally found thousands of miles away.
The special effects are impressive for its $3 million budget, taking advantage of the trolls’ need for shadows. Animating a monster so that it is essentially one with the landscape is part of the fun, recalling Shadow of the Colossus. Fortunately the camerawork is not too jittery, and it helps that the crew is written as experienced journalists, rather than the amateur brahs of Cloverfield. The true star of this show is the wry screenplay, thoughtful references, and clever plays on multiple genres. Pretty much everything is a joke here, including the sternly worded closing notes. This is an encouraging work, in that someone would take the trouble to take a dumb idea in a smart direction, and do so with the utmost respect to the material.