Cineworld Glasgow, 09.09.11
Through negligence on my own part of much knowledge on the national cinema of Norway, and through the general lack of films centered on Trolls, save the fantasy/horror trilogy of the 1980’s and ’90’s (Troll, 1986, John Paul Bucehler and sequels) which I haven’t seen, and have no particular desire to see, the context in which to evaluate André Øvredal’s Troll Hunter (2010), is perhaps the most obvious one, the relatively modern genre of the ‘found-footage’ film. Within that context though, it seems rather disingenuous to compare Troll Hunter with the well-known successes of the oeuvre, such as The Blair Witch Project (1999, Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez) or Cloverfield (2008, Matt Reeves), because compared to both these films Troll Hunter is infinitely superior.
The film opens with an explanation that what we are about to witness is footage filmed by students who set out to record bear hunters in the Norwegian fjords, and is presented as a rough cut in chronological order of what they filmed. The initial set up is important as in presenting a simple explanation, it overcomes two major problems that hang over the found footage genre. Firstly, we are expressly told that this footage is not simply presented as found, but has been edited. It seems a trivial point, but it marred the derisory Cloverfield, in which a supposedly ‘found’ tape was presented supposedly as found, and yet clearly had edited moments within it, thereby destroying the credibility of the entire enterprise. Secondly, as we soon see after the opening, unlike both Blair Witch and Cloverfield, we are presented footage that has been recorded, not by teenagers with a camcorder, but students with a basic knowledge of filming, so fortunately we are spared the constant shaky camera that left many watching Blair Witch in the cinema complaining of nausea by the end. With Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud) as a presenter presence in front of the camera, the cameraman, Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen) remains almost anonymous behind the camera, which contrasts rather neatly to the cameraman in CloverfieldI, who constantly interjects himself into proceedings and is one of many irritants amongst the cast of that particular film. It also provides an explanation for the superior sound quality, as Johanna (Johanna Mørck) is always present, directional microphone in hand (though in reality it could never be this good!). At one point, moving form an exterior shot of a restaurant, to an interior shot, we see Thomas hold up a white sheet of paper and Kalle white balancing the camera. It’s a small detail, but exactly the sort of the detail that helps to establish and maintain the world of the film. How can, in Cloverfield and Blair Witch, every shot we see be perfectly colour balanced by non-professional kids? Incidently, the young cast are uniformly excellent.
The film follows the student trio as they track down Hans (Otto Jesperson), suspected of being an illegal bear poacher, but soon revealed as a disenchanted government employee, whose job is to track down trolls who have escaped from their territories and threaten to both reveal themselves to, and possibly eat, the general public. Discouraged by the governments treatment of trolls, Hans agrees to let the students follow him as he performs his job. At the same time something has gone wrong with the trolls behaviour, and Hans has to discover what is driving the trolls out of their territories.
By presenting it as a documentary there is the opportunity to change the pace, rather than keep a constant, frantic action, again something that marred the one note running around of predecessors. There are plenty of messy action, running through the woods in the dark at night-time, blurry ground and off-screen screams and noise, as the trolls emerge at night-time, but this structure leaves daytime for some exquisite shots of Norway’s spectacular scenery, interviews with Hans, appearances by other characters, primarily Finn (Hans Morten Hansen), a government official tasked with keeping the troll existence secret from the world. This chance to breath gives Troll Hunter the opportunity for some real characterisation of its central character, his disenchantment, his tiredness and the lonely life he leads. There are subtle hints at a deeper soul, a shared moment of intimacy with a veterinarian, a sneaked shot of the scarred and battered body as he dresses, and mentions of a past as a soldier in an interview. Similarly, we get to know Thomas and Johanna as presences in front of the camera, while Kalle remains a presence behind the camera, only revealing something about himself at the worst possible moment…. What this amounts to, of course, are characters, people, that we actually care about, and can invest our own feelings in, even in the clearly fantastical premise of the film. Johanna’s delight at the discovery that trolls exist is a genuine uplifting moment. Unlike Blair Witch and Cloverfield, where the characters are ciphers to be killed off as and when required, and we have no feelings for whatsoever – indeed, most are so faceless and annoying that it’s no loss to see them expire – Troll Hunter takes the time to invest something in its characters.
The gaps in the troll hunting also provide room for some great lighter moments. Central to this is Hans, the troll hunter of the title and the centre of the film. Hans is an unassuming hero, world-weary, tired of his job, which he sees not as extraordinary, but as providing a public service. Any awe he expresses in his work is reserved for the creatures he hunts, who he has come to admire over his years of hunting them. The contrasts between his fantastical line of work and his unassuming attitude towards it, provides ample opportunity for humor. After each troll he kills, Hans has to fill out the necessary paperwork and file it with the Troll Security Service (TSS). Electricity pylons are presented as massive electrical fences used to keep trolls penned in. Thomas questions an energy company official – doesn’t seem odd that the pylons go in a circle and return to the power station – he is met by blank looks of a man just doing his job. Also in this comedic vein is the government official Finn, and his rather incompetent attempts to keep the existence of trolls under wraps. As he deliberately drives over troll tracks, obliterating them, and buys bears from black market polish hunters as scapegoats for the trolls destruction, he too is a government official struggling to just do his job, rather than an evil man.
These examples of government men doing their jobs, caught up in red tape and existing within the system, provide Troll Hunter with an aspect of parody or satire about the modern world. There are hints at bigger questions too. Hans recounts an episode when he had to clear land of trolls to make way for mining, and the massacre that he was responsible for. It obviously points to any mass extermination of animals, or more prophetically, humans in recent history, for one species or ethnicities benefit over another’s. There’s also a comment on religion, and the multi-ethnic world we now inhabit, compared to the simpler world of fairy tales. Trolls, as the children’s rhyme goes, can smell the blood of a Christian man. When Hans first takes the team out hunting with him, he confirms that none of them are Christian. Being Christian could endanger them all. When Malica (Urmila Berg-Domass) arrives as a camerawoman, Thomas asks her if she is Christian. ‘I’m Muslim,’ Malica replies. ‘Is Muslim okay?’, Thomas asks Hans. ‘We’ll find out’, Hans matter of factly replies. Troll Hunter was made in 2010, before the horrific bombing and shootings carried out by Anders Behring Breivik. But it can be seen to hint at some of the unrest in Norwegian society that caused these unforgivable crimes.
All this of course is secondary, and probably an over-reading of the film, because the main achievement of Troll Hunter is the entertainment it provides. The effects are fantastic and not over done. Presumably CGI-created trolls have the earthy, real sense of 80’s puppet and model films, like Labyrinth (1986, Jim Henson) or The Neverending Story (1985, Wolfgang Peterson), but much more slickly and eloquently achieved. The action and tension in the night-time hunts is executed well, and there are enough jumps, screams and jolts to keep the horror fans happy. There is also a happy lack of over-the-top gore, which in modern horror genre is most welcome.
Unique, inventive and fun, Troll Hunter deserves to find a wide audience. And if you don’t find it scary enough, then the thought of the already planned Hollywood remake should terrify anyone. It will be impossible for America to better the original, and the troll myth as presented here seems so central to Norwegian folklore that surely Hollywood should leave well alone. Alas, as usual with the money men, no. Go see the original.
Film Rating: 4 out of 5.