Wednesday, May 25, 2011

SIFF — Troll Hunter

Every year among the award-hopeful dramas, impassioned documentaries, and deep-feeling character studies steeped in cinéma melancholia, SIFF spices up the scheduling grid by slotting in a handful of no-apologies popcorn flicks. Within that group you can typically find at least one imported Scandinavian scare-'em debuting at a midnight showing. This year it's Troll Hunter, the kind of movie the film-snob in me won't touch with a ten-foot Twizzler; meanwhile my inner monster-kid rushes to be first in line. The monster-kid won, as usual, and Elizabeth and I joined friends at the theater early enough to secure primo balcony seats among an enthusiastic packed-house audience. That's how you should see a film like Troll Hunter. I'm glad we did.

Troll Hunter
Norway, 2010
SIFF's page
Official site

In recent years Norway and its border buddies Sweden and Finland sure have made moody, atmospheric horror movies a top popcult export — Villmark (2003), Cold Prey (2006), Frostbitten (2006), Let the Right One In (2008), Dead Snow (2009), Hidden (2009), Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010).... Hey, it's only natural from the moody, atmospheric land that gave us Beowulf, lutefisk, and Renee Zellweger.

Norway's entry in the "found footage" subgenre, Troll Hunter continues the trend with a Cloverfield-scale monster flick pitting flesh-eating behemoths against puny humans with night-vision cameras and modern weapons, plus a hush-hush secret government agency trying to keep the lid on the monsters' very existence.

What makes Troll Hunter stand out, though, is the welcome addition of a wry comic edge that makes the whole thing more at home under the Horror-Comedy label than Horror-Thriller.

Then Ole says to Sven, "Oh, I thought you said toll bridge."
What makes the formula work is director André Øvredal's straight-faced mockumentary style applied to a tongue-in-cheek premise: the trolls of fairy-tale lore, of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen and Brian Froud illustrations, not only exist; lately they're breaking out of "their territory" to dine on livestock and the occasional unlucky tourist.

Oh, and they're big. Really, really big.

The description on SIFF's page is correct in pointing out the Scooby Doo vibe found in the three college students comprising the foolishly reckless camera crew ("Mystery, Inc.") that insists on discovering what the reclusive, surly stranger Hans is up to. Reputed to be a poacher shooting bears without a license, Hans instead is using the bear carcasses as a cover to explain the misdeeds of his true nocturnal prey. Hans is solitary and world-weary and hates his "shitty job," but he's the Troll Security Service's go-to expert when it comes to troll eradication, traveling into the deepest woods and near-arctic wastes in his foul-smelling, tricked out Range Rover (that's perforated with giant claw marks) and his troll-killing arsenal. As Hans, Otto Jespersen delivers flinty anti-heroicism like he's crossing Henrik Ibsen with Quint from Jaws. This lone gunman may be a pain in his bosses' side, but he knows and understands these brutes like he's the lead in Deadliest Catch: Grimm Reality!

After a surprise encounter with a three-headed "Tusseladd" — Hans expected it to be a "Ringlefinch"; Troll Hunter creates its own troll taxonomy — the man with the plan agrees to let those meddling kids follow him and record his activities. It isn't long before the three young filmmakers wish they'd stayed home and listened to Björk albums instead.

Much of the film's suspense and deadpan humor comes from coupling old Norwegian folk traditions to a modern-day monster movie. Because sunlight turns trolls to stone (when it doesn't cause them to explode outright), Hans' biggest weapon is a bazooka-like infrared flash gun. Trolls can sniff out "the blood of any Christian man," a verifiable fact after it's discovered that one of the students lied during Hans' questioning on this point. Some trolls do indeed dwell under bridges, so the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff gets a dark-funny shout-out along the way.

Troll Hunter is clever and imaginative and good fun. Almost alarmingly, the film never broke its delicate skin of verisimilitude, that make-believe authenticity on which everything else hangs. Its abundant visual FX mix a vérité style with just the proper piquant of Jarlsberg cheese. The handheld mock-doc approach isn't nearly as annoying as we've seen it in other films such as Blair Witch and Cloverfield. Ample use is made of spectacular Norwegian forests, lakes, and icy mountain ranges, including a climactic battle in the forbidding alpine Jotunheimen range, literally the "Home of the Giants" where Norse mythology places the abode of the Rock Giants and Frost Giants.

Troll Hunter is also draggy in spots and would benefit from a 15-minute trim. Still, stay with it until the final showdown with the Godzilla-sized "Rotnar" that has broken through the electric fence surrounding its deep-forest preserve — Norway's long-distance power grid gets a witty cameo role here — a climax that looks sensational and somehow avoids jumping any giant Norwegian sharks.

This morning Elizabeth and I punctuated our waking-up and getting-ready-for-the-day by randomly exclaiming "Troll!" at key moments. I predict we'll be doing it for weeks.

Music: Dvořák's Symphony No. 9
Near at hand: B.B. King concert poster