One of the surprise hits with the audience at last year’s annual Frightfest gathering, and a festival favourite at late night screenings on circuits around the world since 2010, writer-director André Øvredal’s “Troll Hunter” builds on the success of the recent folklore-inspired fantasy “Rare Exports”, to bring yet more extraordinary Norwegian mythology to contemporary genre cinema -- this time wittily exploiting the increasingly tired clichés of the found footage format to infuse an ambience of the fantastical, the outlandish and the absurd into the blunt, faux-authentic norms of video documentary reportage, a genre usually associated with earthy grit and dependability. When “Troll Hunter” works at its best it becomes almost a sly Fortean comment on the adult world’s loss of childlike innocence and wonder and imagination, inadequately replaced by the mundane that's represented here by the harsh video presentation of prosaic documentary truth.
In this context the film amusingly inverts the very Idea, and swaps the dominant, accepted worldview (which turns to explanations founded in predictable impersonal forces and regularly occurring natural phenomena) for an alternative presentation of reality in which a rugged Norwegian geological landscape of gneiss rock formations, for instance, is crazily posited instead as the site of a battleground for warring trolls! By the same process, a glade of crushed or snapped trees one would normally presume to have been subject to storm damage or other adverse weather conditions is instead explained as being the victim of a troupe of trolls thundering through the area by night; an outbreak of slaughtered sheep on the lower hills of this picturesque country, typically attributed to bears which have been driven from their usual habitat by global warming, is here now explained by the activities of a mountain troll who has wandered out of his customary stomping ground to cause havoc in his search for Christian blood; and the film also later explains how the common or garden electricity pylon also serves a secondary purpose of ring-fencing communities of trolls and keeping them away from an unsuspecting public! Yes, the good old conspiracy theory has also been drafted in to augment this film’s Fortean taste for exotic cryptozoology and outlandish alternative explanations for common phenomena, as it eventually turns out that the Norwegian Government knows all about the troll problem but has been keeping the secret from the world at large, presumably since time immemorial!
Thus it is that the world according to “Troll Hunter” is gradually revealed to be entirely different from the kind of world we always previously assumed we lived in. But rather than contemporary paranoid conspiracies about alien cover-ups and secret cabals ruling the world, the real cover-up has been based on the notion that we really do live in a fairy tale world, populated by a plethora of species of exotic picture book trolls that live under remote countryside bridges or in deep dark caves, mercilessly hunt Christians if ever given the merest sniff of one, and turn into stone or explode when exposed to sunlight.
The film presents itself apparently without irony and with no clearly signposted ‘jokes’ as such, yet a comic element emerges organically from its straight-faced adoption of all those now over-utilised ‘reality’ tropes, instantly recognisable from their ubiquity in the found footage genre (grainy, shaky hand-held video footage; night-cam vision; improvised gabbling by the largely unknown cast; solemn on-screen editorial captions that insist on the footage’s authenticity, etc.); but this time they’ve been re-contextualised and juxtaposed with a gorgeous landscape that’s mooted to be teeming with mythical creatures that look exactly like they’ve sprung to life from the exaggerated illustrations of an 18th Century book of fairy tales for children!
The result is often bizarrely awe-inspiring, provoking a heightened sense of the Uncanny in the viewer. Norway already has an overwhelmingly dramatic, mountainous landscape, carved over many millennia by dwarfing glacial geological processes, which can’t but help inspire thoughts of the sublime. Øvredal makes full use of this profound setting to instil the film with its requisite sense of mysteriousness, and with intimations of the transcendent hidden reality beyond the senses so obliquely suggested by this most inscrutably majestic of landscapes. During the film we’re immersed in an environment made up of mist-shrouded mountainous scenery and dark, enticing woodland wildernesses; a coastline carved out and dominated by deep mysterious fjords surrounded by towering cliff faces that play host to staggering waterfalls; strange craggy rock formations and vast cave systems. In fact, the film makes for an unlikely but effective travelogue brochure for the country, every sequence dwelling on a memorable scenic sight that stirs the imagination and sets up the evocative atmosphere of wondrous preposterousness which eventually takes centre stage.
The film follows a trio of young students from Volda College on a road trip assignment that takes them from one end of their country to the other during the course of a documentary filmmaking project, initially expected to be about some wild bear attacks that have purportedly caused the deaths of several tourists and been responsible for a host of sheep mutilations in the south. Cameraman Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen), sound girl Johanna (Johanna Mørck ) and onscreen interviewer Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud) interview a bunch of sceptical bear hunters and learn about a mysterious ‘poacher’ called Hans (Otto Jespersen) who always seems to be on the scene soon after every atrocity. The intrepid filmmakers turn their film into a documentary about this mysterious figure, who they eventually track down to an obscure campsite, where he lives in a battered van covered in strange claw marks and dents. They clandestinely continue following him across the length and breadth of Norway as he makes his way to numerous sites of reported atrocities, all of which are still being attributed to bears by the local authorities. Then during a night-time stake-out in some woods, the filmmakers witness and catch on film something they cannot begin to comprehend. It turns out Hans is stalking something very much bigger and a great deal odder than a bear!
After a close shave with a giant three-headed, one-eyed ogre that lumbers from the forest by moonlight, the three filmmakers find themselves unexpectedly made the close confidante of a rather fed-up and taciturn Hans, who claims to be a Government employed troll hunter, assigned to make sure Norway’s biggest secret stays that way. Unhappy with his lot, and what he considers to be an uncaring attitude by the authorities, Hans decides to let the team follow him and document his day-to-day activities as he journeys cross-country, investigating the troll manifestations that have started occurring more and more frequently in human inhabited areas. He is convinced that there is something causing this recent unusually intense bout of troll activity, and decides upon the arduous and dangerous task of obtaining a blood sample from one of the many species in existence, so that it can be analysed by a sympathetic vet friend in search of a clue to the mystery -- while the students film the entire process for their potentially world-changing exposé.
“Troll Hunter” follows the usual pattern seen in nearly all found footage movies, spending an inordinate amount of its time on the filmmakers’ interviews with the various subjects they meet on their journey and on their odd propensity (also shared by the protagonists in all these kinds of films) for shooting almost everything that happens to them on video no matter how mundane it may be. But it also differs from the majority in that it does eventually fill the screen with the plentiful and thunderous troll action we’ve all turned up to see. As we find out from Hans when he gives his new friends a breakdown of troll biology and an outline of the enormously varied family tree of troll species which apparently exist in some state of disgruntlement with each other (and which include types going by unfortunate names such as Tosserlad and Rimetosser … so no wonder they’re angry!), there is a rich and detailed menagerie of trolls displaying different appearances and harbouring very different characteristics: there’s the shaggy-haired, large nosed mountain king species and the bizarre wood-dwelling Ringlefinch; and then there’s the colossal yeti-like species that lives in the snow-covered north. They can all sniff out the blood of Christians, so atheists make for ideal troll hunters, although, as the three filmmakers discover, it is still necessary to cleanse yourself of all human bodily odour and smear hideous smelling ‘troll stink’ all over yourself before venturing out to confront one. An inability to process Vitamin D causes the creatures to explode in a shower of slime when exposed to UVB rays (hence Hans’ giant flash-lamp, mounted on the roof of his truck) and as they grow older they might grow the odd extra head-like protuberance as well, and turn to stone when exposed to light rather than merely exploding.
Despite his work being until now totally secret and unacknowledged officially in any way by the Government, Hans is bogged down in bureaucracy and official paper work, having to fill in a lengthy ‘Slayed Troll Form’ after every operation and employing a group of Polish workers to provide bear corpses that have to be assiduously planted at the scene of each troll atrocity. Norway’s wildlife bodies are all in on the conspiracy and the power station workers soon get bored of questioning why the power lines in some regions simply go round in a circle, although they are unaware of the fact that they are effectively unwitting troll keepers for the Government!
The film is supremely successful in visualising these outlandish mythical creatures as beings that both leap out of their stupendous environment and yet seem to belong in the midst of the various ancient Norwegian landscapes they occupy as embodiments of a long lost past of ageless folklore. The budget was only about $3 million but the troll CGI effects strike the perfect balance between reminding one of the creatures’ fairy tale origins, and feeling solid, believable and enough a part of the scenery into which they’ve been merged to enable the viewer to buy into the illusion.
If the film has a failing then it’s the usual one that almost always attends those made in the found footage genre, and it relates to the ending, which is too sudden and unsatisfyingly confused in execution, and necessarily leaves all of the various plot threads completely unresolved. The film does also feature a guest appearance by the real Norwegian Prime Minister at the end, though -- apparently accidently confirming the existence of trolls during a press conference!
Momentum Pictures’ UK DVD features nearly an hour of special features which include deleted scenes, extended versions of scenes, bloopers and visual effects breakdowns; some behind the scenes video shot by the cast provides some amusing moments, a short ‘making of’ featurette gives a quick overview of the filmmakers’ intentions, and there’s a photo gallery of Norwegian views and a theatrical trailer.
The transfer is pretty good, although, seeing as it was all shot to look like DV camcorder footage, its often deliberately grainy and low resolution in character. The viewer is given the choice of two audio tracks: either the original Norwegian one with English subtitles, or a very unconvincing English dub by American voice artists, which should be avoided. Both are in 5.1 and show off a very impressive and immersive sound design during the trolls' on-screen appearances.
“Troll Hunter” is undoubtedly destined for cult classic status; it builds its own convincing pseudo-scientific mythology around an evocative fairy tale superstructure and brings it to life against a jaw-droppingly splendid Norwegian landscape, displaying convincing stylistic assurance in the act. A monster triumph.
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