Saturday, October 3, 2015

Trollhunter

Trollhunter (2010) is a movie I want to like more than I actually do. A mockumentary from Norway, it follows three college students (Glenn Erland, Johanna Morck, and Tomas Alf Larsen) as they begin following and videotaping a suspected poacher. When they finally meet up with him, they learn Hans (Otto Jespersen) is not a poacher but actually a troll hunter. In fact, he's employed by the Norwegian government to keep the local troll populations in check. Tired of his job, Hans agrees to let the students follow him, much to the annoyance of his boss, Finn Haugen (Hans Morten Hansen).

Found footage movies work by blurring the line between reality and fantasy. Yes, we know they're really just movies, that these people are just actors, but in the back of our minds, we have a smidgen of doubt, a little thought that says, "Eh, this could have happened." One technique to accomplish this is to never show the monster, as The Blair Witch Project and Willow Creek do. Since we never see an actor in makeup as a witch or an animatronic ape creature, the level of artifice is lessened, and it creates more uncertainty in the viewer.

Trollhunter adopts a different approach by showing lots of trolls. These aren't quick, barely-seen glimpses of shadowy figures in the woods, but wide open shots that show off the creatures' full size and shape. There are many different types of trolls, you see: mountain trolls, cave trolls, forest trolls, and another that lives under a bridge. A veterinarian helpfully explains trolls' bodies cannot process Vitamin D, so when they are exposed to light, they turn to stone or explode.

The movie has a lot of fun positing trolls as a protected species. Hans is more like a grizzled game warden than a driven Van Helsing; he's a guy doing his job and putting down rogue trolls when they encroach on human territory. In the colder regions of Norway, electrical power lines and towers are used to contain an especially massive specimen, and government officials deposit bear corpses near areas where people have been killed by trolls, so the true nature of their killers remains hidden (amusingly, one official complains when a kind of bear that could not be possibly be found in Norway is used).  There's even a hilarious coda using edited footage of a real-life press conference in which the actual prime minister of Norway admits nonchalantly the country has a troll problem, but of course, the media don't pick up on it.

The trolls themselves are big, mean, and ugly, and while we see a lot of them, the filmmakers don't overexpose them (hee hee). We see them through night-vision filters, at long distances, and otherwise partially obscured by trees, fog, and shadows. There is a certain innocence to these creatures (they are essentially wild animals just doing their thing), and in the case of the final troll, we get a sense of majesty. Still, they are dangerous and wild. When the group is trapped in a cave by a pack of trolls, it is fairly tense.

The problem is all these details are adrift in a movie lacking a strong narrative to pull them together. Once the kids learn the true nature of Hans' work, the movie pretty much goes from set piece to set piece and never really builds dramatically. Individual scenes are strong: Hans donning makeshift armor to collect a blood sample from the aforementioned troll under the bridge is suitably tense and darkly funny as an updated fairy tale scenario, and the climax in which the group encounters an especially giant troll achieves a grand sense of awe and terror.


But apart from Hans (apparently the only troll hunter in Norway), Trollhunter lacks any interesting characters. The student filmmakers never really emerge with strong personalities, and I just kept wondering when they were going to do something with all this amazing footage they've shot. Those other found footage movies save the reveals until the end of the movie, so you can see why those characters keep filming, but these Norwegian kids encounter and record so many trolls, I wanted to know why they hadn't shown this material to any news agency or uploaded it on the Internet or something, especially when they know the government official Hans work for is not happy with their activity (why he waits until the very end of the movie to try to confiscate anything of their gear or film when he encounters them a few times beforehand is another unsolved mystery). 

Another detail puzzles me. Hans asks the group if any of them believe in God or Jesus because trolls smell the blood of Christian men. They all say no, but of course, one of them isn't being entirely truthful, and that comes back to bite him (his replacement is Muslim woman, but Hans admits he doesn't know if that will mean anything). Two issues: one, since this is the camera operator and we never see him, his death doesn't have much impact, and two, wouldn't knowledge that trolls like Christian blood be some sort of implicit acknowledgement of the faith's accuracy? It's like vampires who are repelled by crosses but only if the wielder has faith. No scientific explanation is offered for why this is, and the film doesn't account for the contradiction that Hans apparently doesn't believe in God and yet knows trolls are drawn to Christian blood.

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