Cast: Otto Jespersen, Glenn Erland Tosterud, Johanna Mørck, Tomas Alf Larsen, Hans Morten Hansen ~ Writer: André Øvredal ~ Director: André Øvredal
Reviewer: Jehan Ranasinghe (aka @Maustallica)
The Low-Down: A triumph of filmmaking imagination on a shoestring budget, Troll Hunter may not be the deepest film in the world, but it displays more than enough creativity, craft and audacity to be a thoroughly entertaining romp.
What’s it About?: This “true” story alleges to be the recovered footage of a trio of Norwegian university students making a documentary about a man they suspect to be an illegal bear trapper. When they catch up to the presumed poacher, Hans (Otto Jespersen), they discover instead that he’s a professional troll hunter, tasked with keeping populations of the mythological creatures in check for the Norwegian government. Hans decides to allow the students to accompany him on his excursions and document his work – a decision that threatens to make their university film project rather more hazardous than they realise…
The Story: It’s been curious watching the development of the “found footage” filmmaking subgenre in the last decade or so. It was always inevitable after the phenomenal success of The Blair Witch Project that imitators would spring up in its wake, but it’s nevertheless been surprising just how mainstream this once revolutionary filmmaking style has become. From indie efforts like [REC] and Paranormal Activity to blockbusters such as Cloverfield, directors have been queuing up to embrace documentary-style concepts such as the shaky viewpoint, improvisational dialogue and to-camera monologues, rendering these ideas – groundbreaking in 1999 – as conventional and familiar as a fake-out scare or musical sting. This isn’t to say that all found footage movies post-Blair Witch have been worthless (though the quality has certainly been variable), but it can sometimes be difficult to recall exactly what made this genre seem so interesting in the first place.
This is one of many reasons why writer/director André Øvredal’s Troll Hunter – originally released in its native Norway in 2010, but only now receiving its general UK cinema release – comes across as such a breath of fresh air. A gutsy, good-natured and endlessly creative work that works near-miracles with a tight budget, this is a film that evokes the Blair Witch spirit in all the right ways – and not just because it features long stretches of two guys and a girl running for their lives through a dark forest. Rather, it calls back to the same ideal of making something out of nothing and allowing the boundaries of low-cost filmmaking to act as a guide rather than a limitation, resulting in a movie with a delightfully homemade feel to accompany its pleasingly robust credentials as a cinematic thrill-ride.
One of the first things you’ll notice about Troll Hunter is this: it is exceptionally Norwegian. From its endless shots of wild, haunted landscapes to its constant references to local cultural trends, both ancient and modern, every part of the film’s identity is inextricably tied up with that of its home country. Of course, a Scandinavian flavour is no obstacle to international success these days, thanks to films such as Let the Right One In and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but one does sometimes feel in the case of Troll Hunter that it’d probably be impossible to ever fully understand its full range of allusions without actually being Norwegian, or at least coming armed with a list of annotations.
But that matters little when the lore within the film that does translate does so with such effectiveness, most notably in the case of the trolls themselves. To create his creatures, Øvredal comprehensively raids the store of fairy and folk tale conventions, selecting and discarding iconic traits with equal glee. There’s no riddle-solving or fee-fi-fo-fumming involved with these trolls, concepts pooh-poohed as silly children’s stories by the characters; conversely, tropes such as bridge-dwelling, turning to stone in sunlight and sniffing out the blood of Christians are retained, rationalised with cheerfully pseudoscientific explanations and utilised as the basis for tense action set pieces. Øvredal shows equal opportunistic skill in turning contemporary Norwegian cultural touchstones to his film’s advantage – illegal bear hunting becomes a cover for the troll hunter’s activities and the country’s enormous power pylons become anti-troll defence systems, while a clip of Norway’s prime minister Jens Stoltenberg is amusingly deployed as an off-kilter punchline.
Throughout Troll Hunter flows the likeable sense of a team cobbling together the best film they can with the materials they have to hand, Blue Peter-style. This extends through to its cast, an amiable collection of young unknowns and Norwegian comedians who generally don’t excel, but nevertheless fulfil their roles more than adequately. The clear standout is Jespersen, the titular troll hunter himself, who makes for a compellingly gruff presence as he portrays Hans as a jaded civil servant who’s sick of years of low-paid, underappreciated work and filling in “slayed troll forms”. However, the most remarkable use of resources comes in terms of the film’s visual effects, which utilise a variety of intelligent techniques – smart lighting, evocative camera work, economical use of effects shots – to make a budget of $4 million go much further than you’d think possible. Granted, some of this is accomplished through misdirection, with rapid cuts tricking the brain into thinking it’s seen more than it really has, but you’d be churlish to complain about corner-cutting when the film reveals the Jotnar, its colossal 200-foot showpiece monster, which wouldn’t look out of place in a film with ten times the resources.
In fact, if there’s any major problem with Troll Hunter, it’s that its skill with individual elements of filmmaking technique sometimes exceeds the quality of the film itself. For all the ambition showed in its production, the final work is exceedingly simple, often to a fault; once the initial thrill of being introduced to the trolls has passed, it becomes clear that there isn’t a huge amount more than that going on, with light elements of satire about the oppressive Norwegian government playing second or third fiddle to enjoyable but shallow troll-battling thrills. Beyond the deliberately distant and enigmatic Hans, there also isn’t much in the way of character interest; the central trio don’t really get much development, with dramatic, tragic developments for the group being brushed off with disconcertingly little fanfare. One does feel that the film – with its desolate backdrops and its strangely sad, subdued monsters and protagonists – probably could have afforded to explore its melancholic overtones more deeply had it so chosen; that it doesn’t is a cause for slight disappointment.
Still, when a film gets as much right as Troll Hunter does, it’s exceedingly difficult to wish it anything other than success. It certainly deserves to make back its modest budget and achieve cult status, both inevitabilities once its English-language run is complete; it’ll also be interesting to watch the progress of the equally inevitable US remake, options for which have reportedly already been picked up by Chris Columbus’ production company 1492. Certainly, it’s hard to see how well this would work outside its Norwegian setting, or if its low-rent charms would translate across to a higher-budget production, but none of that should concern Øvredal and crew; however well or badly the remake fares, it shouldn’t take away from the success of their idiosyncratic and hugely charming effort.
The Verdict: It’s not big and it’s not massively clever, but Troll Hunter is everything you want from a cult creature feature; ingeniously made, blackly humorous and full of well-crafted thrills.