06.18.10

This interview was first published in the Tucson Citizen when I was doing a film blog called “Off the Marquee”: June 18, 2010

As a teenager, Michael Stephenson thought he had received his big break. In 1990 he was chosen to star in a horror film. So many actors start out with small roles in horror films that Stephenson had every right to imagine that he might be on his way to a serious acting career. The film not only failed to have a theatrical release, but also became a huge embarrassment to those involved through video and screenings on late night television. Troll 2, the story of a small enclave of goblins that trap tourists for food, went on to consistently register on lists of the worst movies ever made. However the film found life in the hearts of trash cinephiles who found the earnest performances, strange special effects, and preposterous premise engaging. As he grew up and established some distance from the film, Stephenson became aware of loose pockets of fans around the world and produced a documentary that goes beyond exploring the phenomenon of bad cinema and excavates the cast for a compelling story about the true value of art. We spoke to Stephenson by phone as he travels the country making appearances with his documentary Best Worst Movie, a “where are they now” story about the film’s director, cast, and fan base.

Billups: As an actor, Troll 2 was not your only movie with the film’s director Claudio Fragasso?
Michael Stephenson: Beyond Darkness was done about a year and a half after Troll 2.

Billups: I don’t know if it was a mistake, but IMDB has the film listed before Troll 2 as House V. There is that series of films called House. Is there any relation to the other four films?
Michael Stephenson:Absolutely no connection whatsoever. It’s sort of the same deal as Troll 2. There is no connection to the first Troll. I guess in Italy they were notorious for ripping off titles from American sequels.

Billups: It seems Fragasso does not see the same things that the fans of the film do. Does he see some intrinsic value in the film that others don’t?
Michael Stephenson: Claudio Fragasso plays a big part in the documentary. Part of what we see and learn is how he and a lot of the Italian crew really took it so seriously and their perception of what they were making which, in turn, is what we thought we were making. Everybody thought we were making this great horror film. In Best Worst Movie,  you see Claudio and his wife Rosella [Drudi] who wrote the script process it.

Billups: I know Fragasso has worked for Dario Argento. I have always felt Italian horror directors have a different sense of linear narrative than horror directors from other countries.
Michael Stephenson: I think Claudio made the film the way he wanted to make it. I think that is always to be commended. He is full of heart and passion. It is certainly unique. You know, you look at something like Troll 2  and you could say that it failed in every kind of fundamental cinematic way , but it still has this strange competence. It hasn’t failed to entertain. You can’t say that Troll 2 is not creative. I think that makes it a film that is certainly not the worst film ever made. I think the worst film that was ever made was a film that bores you.

Billups: A bad movie to me is one that is not engaging. I find Troll 2 engaging.
Michael Stephenson: Yea, I don’t want to make it sound like it’s Citizen Kane, but it’s a movie that has found an audience and engaged an audience and left an impression all these years later. Think of all the films that are made with far greater resources that are supposed to be much better because  logically they check all the boxes. But they are forgettable.

Billups: I get frustrated with the language of film being steeped in realistic performances and special effects. Do you feel this trend could ever come to a head and people will start appreciating more unconventional filmmaking?
Michael Stephenson: I hope so. I think Transformers 2 is the worst movie ever made. There is this notion of what is considered to be a “good” movie and those movies are just the same thing. It’s exciting to see movies that take risks and are resourceful and do something different. So many of the movies coming out of Hollywood are throwing a bunch of stuff against the wall just to see what sticks.

Billups: There must have been a time after Troll 2 was completed that you realized that the film had at least failed in the traditional sense.
Michael Stephenson: Troll 2 was released straight to VHS. This was 1990 or 1991, and after that it was banished to late night television and it played all the time on late night television  and it was my first movie and I was embarrassed by it. This is the movie I thought was going to be great and everybody said it was horrible. I remember getting the newspaper and rushing to pull out the TV guide and just praying that I wouldn’t see Troll 2 listed in there again. And every Sunday there it was. And right next to Troll 2 was the icon of a turkey. I remember really not wanting anything to do with it.

Billups: When did you realize the film was amassing a cult following?
Michael Stephenson: It wasn’t until 2003 that MGM released a DVD with Troll and Troll 2 together; MGM  acquired the catalogue and had no idea that they were completely unrelated, so they put them together. So that DVD started getting out there and it was just over four years ago when I started the documentary. There had been no large screenings or reunions yet. In 2006 I started getting messages from out of nowhere asking ‘is this Joshua Waits from Troll 2? Please, say it is so.’ At first I thought: Ugh, this thing is never going to go away. Then I started interacting with the fans and I realized the fans did not know about each other; they were all sending me messages thinking they were the only ones who were doing this. It was weird. In a period of two or three weeks I got messages from people from different parts of the world. They started sending pictures of their Troll 2 parties. And there would be eight or nine kids watching Troll 2, dressing up as goblins, and eating green food.

Billups: I often talk to people who are attached to certain movies that they saw over and over again on late night television.
Michael Stephenson: Now so much is on demand. It’s not the same; if something doesn’t grab your attention in the first five minutes you have a million other options. Where as before you went to a video store and try to decide what to rent and watch it all the way through. Films that have the ability to create that communal movie watching experience and bring people to a theater at midnight and have this experience together is remarkable. In a time when art house theaters are being bulldozed and turned into parking lots, the movie watching experience is starting to become disconnected and fragmented. People decide to watch stuff alone or on their phones. Watching films together with friends in a theater is not only a great experience, but also it seems to be passing, and that’s a shame.

Billups: I noticed that the cast was reassembled at some point. How did the others react to your resurrection of Troll 2? Did you find any of them hiding from their past and/or still acting in other films?
Michael Stephenson: A lot of the movie is about that. The movie is more about the humanity of a bad movie and the people who made it. It is not so much about “let’s take apart this phenomenon and define what makes it.” It’s more of a human driven film.

Billups: Best Worst Movie seems to be reaching a wider audience than its subject matter.
Michael Stephenson: You don’t have to see Troll 2 to take away an enjoyable experience. It’s inevitable that if you have not seen Troll 2 and you see Best Worst Movie, you’re probably going to want to watch it. It’s neat to see, because most of these people are not the kind of people who would watch Troll 2. Through the documentary they are introduced to this absurd world through the eyes of a dentist [Troll 2 actor George Hardy became a dentist after the film was done]: a man who is relatable in so many ways.

Billups: The best documentaries to me are ones that where an artistic struggle transcends the subject matter.
Michael Stephenson: It’s been wild. We have played some pretty serious documentary festivals. I would see 50-year-old women walking out saying: ‘Oh my god, I have to go see Troll 2.’

06.16.10

Virgins from Hell (1987)

This movie opens on a curious premise. The leader of a female motorcycle gang infiltrates a casino by seducing the owner. She gets him alone; naturally, he is expecting something. She fights him off, kicks his ass, and then the rest of the gang drives a jeep through the front door and robs the place. Why didn’t they just drive a jeep through the door in the first place? Such is logic not to be questioned in the Indonesian women-in-prison epic Virgins from Hell. If logic were applied, you might ask if the leader of an international drug ring would really wear such a wide variety of cummerbunds. I have not been exposed to very much Indonesian culture; perhaps their drug lords do look like they have raided Prince’s Goodwill donation pile. As curious as his choice in wardrobe is the fact that he changes clothes often throughout the film. I tried hard to determine if this was just a continuity problem, but it really seems to be on purpose.

Eventually, the drug lord captures the gang and holds them hostage in a dungeon underneath a laboratory where he is developing an ecstasy-type drug that makes women want to have sex. There is nothing subtle about the plot. I am not a huge fan of the women-in-prison genre, but this one is interesting for its naivete’. Most of the scenes seem improvised, until the action sequences, which are meticulously staged and still relatively incompetent. The exploitation aspects of the film are hard to take seriously which removes some of the power from the prison situations. For me, it works. Loaded with low budget spectacle, Virgins from Hell comes across as a sort of primary color version of Rambo II.

The Pit (1981)

The beginning echoes a hint of Stephen King’s high school horror story Carrie (1976). Jamie (Sammy Snyders) is a creepy little kid. However on the surface, Jamie’s problems don’t seem too far outside of the realm of natural curiosity. In spite of this, people seem to hate him on sight. His schoolmates. The librarian. Even elderly ladies in wheelchairs ridicule him. His father wants to write him off as a “nutcase.” What is it that repulses people so about Jamie? The answer becomes pretty apparent when becomes hot for his babysitter Sandy (Jeannie Elias). Jamie is also taking orders from a strange looking teddy bear.

Jamie”s parents take a cue from this especially difficult time in his life and decide to go on vacation without him. Sandy claims to be something of an expert babysitter having experience with troubled children. She exemplifies her expertise by parading around in towels and nightgowns. Jamie steals from her and stares at her chest while he asks how old her boyfriend is. The two form a real love/hate relationship.

With all this going on, you might forget the movie is called The Pit. It turns out that the kid has a pit. He feeds it. It eats things. It’s full of monsters. While the film’s tone is somewhat dire up to this point, this horror film takes on a Dennis the Menace quality as bodies start disappearing around town. I don’t wanna give too much away regarding the pit and its actual contents, but the movie is good clean fun in the vein of the 80s heavy metal inspired classic The Gate (1987) and wholly worth seeing because someone actually says, “come on in, the water’s great.”

The New Barbarians: Warriors of the Wasteland (1982)

There are so many awesome things going on in this movie that I can’t keep up. Decapitations. Impractical weaponry. Futuristic codpieces. The opening is a model of a cityscape becoming engulfed with nuclear fallout while a cheap keyboard drum machine churns out an 80s action theme. This Italian pseudo- Road Warrior story is a typical low budget apocalyptic nightmare from the 80s.

After the 2019 nuclear war (heads up), a band of settlers are roaming, attempting to survive on their hunter-gatherer skills. On their tail are The Templars. The Templars want to wipe out humanity. They never say why they want to wipe out humanity, but they make a point of mentioning it often. As self-proclaimed “ministers of revenge” the Templars are doing a lousy job; there seem to be pockets of humanity all over the place. They drive techno cars endowed with a variety of weapons that impale, shred, and burn victims who are too stupid to run in a canted line. Fortunately for the Templars, battles take place on flat ground so everyone can run in a straight line away from their tyranny.

The film’s protagonist is an ex-Templar named Scorpion (Giancarlo Prete). The Templars want him dead. They never say why Scorpion is an ex-Templar, but the Templars do attempt to rape him in one of the strangest scenes I have ever seen. Out of nowhere, Black Caesar star Fred Williamson appears in this mess as Nadir. Nadir and Scorpion don’t get along either, but they spend a lot of the movie showing up in the nick of time to rescue one another.

The 1950s were wide open to science fiction films thwarting the conventions of science since no one had ever been into space. People knew better in the 80s, but there was “what if” nuclear paranoia leaving the decade wide open to post-apocalyptic nonsense. Most of these movies are worth watching for one reason or another. Loaded with unnecessary stunts, terrible acting, horrible special effects, and an excessive amount of headbands, The New Barbarians: Warriors of the Wasteland is the cream of the crop.

The Being (1983)

The opening credits of The Being are simple white words against a black backdrop. No soundtrack. Martin Landau. That’s promising. Jose Ferrer. Even more promising. Ruth Buzzi? Yea, this is gonna be good. The Being is loaded to the breaking point with low budget 80s horror cliches. Teenagers act bad and get eaten. The mayor is attempting a cover up. Red lights appear in the background out of nowhere during attacks. No one is concerned about the fact that people are rapidly disappearing. The being only attacks after a dog, cat or falling pie tin scares the victim first. New ground is broken in the form of an Easter egg hunt where a toddler comes across the Being having a rest in a hole among the trees near the church. There is also a great scene involving a drive-in movie showing a movie about an amorphous being terrorizing teenagers. The drive-in is filled with moviegoers screaming at the screen and making out. Is there a good chance that the being will put in an appearance? I won’t ruin the surprise.

Martin Landau portrays Garson Jones, a scientist investigating possibly dangerous radioactivity in the area. The combination of the element of class Landau adds to the production versus a lack of research on the part of the filmmaker as to what a scientist might actually say makes for some wonderful moments such as Landau holding a Geiger counter over his wristwatch on a talk show. Ruth Buzzi surprises by providing some of the film’s most bizarre moments; namely bleeding through his eyes during a bizarre Wizard of Oz-type dream sequence and being killed off when her garage is destroyed during an operatic recital.

The Being itself is a bit of an enigma in that it seems to move quickly when it is lurking around on its own from the point of view of the camera, but is not very adept at chasing people when a pivotal character is in trouble. The Being is also randomly selective about whom it kills right away and whom it throws around and injures for the sake of the story. It absorbs people whole, but never seems to get any bigger. Sometimes it is a gelatinous blob, and other times it looks like a giant peanut with a deformed hand. As the movie progresses, the creature begins to take on a more definable shape, something of a bastardization of H.R. Giger’s design for Alien, but the creature is ultimately hard to pin down as it alternates between having hands and tentacles when one appendage becomes convenient over the other.

All in all, The Being wins as being great b-movie fun in that it maintains a good pace and has a little something for every permutation of low budget horror taste. No one “acts” for too long, the unintentional laughs do not languish and the gore is lit so you can’t tell how much they spent on it. You can generally tell what is going to happen from minute to minute, but the film seems aware of its shortcomings and acts accordingly. You won’t get bored. If you find yourself not liking what you are seeing, give it a minute. Something else will happen.

Scum of the Earth (1963)

You know a movie is bad when Herschell Gordon Lewis doesn’t want his name on it. It was Lewis H. Gordon who directed this early-60s exploitation flick. I looked for information on Gordon’s pseudonyms and found no indication as to why he used them. Evidence suggests that he produced under a variety of names, including: H.G. Lewis, Georges Parades, Armand Parys, Sheldon S. Seymore, and R.L. Smith. It could be for reasons that the plot of Scum of the Earth explores; Lewis was involved in a lot of potentially sketchy pictures. There was some inherent danger in showing nudity in films and photography in the 50s and 60s. Scum of the Earth is an exploitation meta-narrative exploring the process that led to women taking off their tops in front of unscrupulous art photographers.

The movie plays out naively, in the style of a pseudo after school special. I’m sure all of these photo sessions didn’t take place after someone uttered the phrase “what kind of modeling is this?”According to the film, it was a slippery slope from “come around here and let me see your legs” to “ok, ok, off with the sweater.” The presumption is that you can make anyone do anything you want by threatening to call the police and implicate him or her in a nudie picture consortium. However, this element of the film may be somewhat steeped in reality. The film takes place during a time when pornography was well underground. The biopic The Notorious Betty Page (2005) makes it out to seem as if the girls in her circles were often willing participants, but presented the danger of arrest as a solid obstacle. Scum of the Earth pretends to be informative, showing the dark side of the industry. In the process, it exposes a lot of bare chests. It is genius in that it is what it is protesting: it is exploitive. The acting is terrible, but the elaborate system of blackmail is intriguing, if not somewhat unrealistic. I am starting to sound like one of those people who read Playboy for the articles. Scum of the Earth is fun to watch as a fan of Herschell Gordon Lewis films. Exploitation films from this era seem as if they are describing the lives of people who survived teenage delinquency films of the 50s like Blackboard Jungle. Obviously, nude photography is not the scourge of the land the movie makes it out to be. If you have to see one exploitation flick, it might as well be the one that tries to explain its industry.

 

Robo Vampire (1988)

One of my all time favorite Mystery Science Theater 3000 lines has stuck in my head for so long that I involuntarily think about it on occasion when I am watching a convoluted film. The line is “meanwhile, in another movie.” I generally get a lot of satisfaction reflecting on that when it becomes appropriate. However this line was triggered so often during Robo Vampire it became maddening. Without a doubt one of the most confounding movies I have ever seen, director Godfrey Ho was clearly attempting to produce a film that would cash in on the success of Robocop (1987). He also seems to have made the film with his eyes closed. Light on the problems inherent in the making of this film might derive from one of many telling pieces of dialogue: “Orientals are a stubborn race.”

From what I can gather, there is a guy, and he controls vampires that have some hand in protecting a drug cartel. Somewhere along the way, a drug agent gets killed and is turned into a robot. Robots versus vampires; that part seems pretty clear. The rest of the movie primarily consists of roving gangs of kung fu people who run across each other from time to time. These incidents generally lead to passable karate, incompetent gunplay, or bouncing vampires. Fight scenarios are generally preceded by choice bits of dialogue like: “how dare you take my lover’s corpse powers and turn him into a vampire beast. Now we are condemned to a living death and we can never be together in the afterlife.” Since there is not a lot to latch on to with regards to describing the plot, I will share another favorite line of dialogue. Busting into a hive of drug smugglers, the robot makes the following Robocop-esque demand: “Drop your weapons in fifteen seconds. Fifteen. Fourteen. Thirteen.”Evidently his advanced brain did not process how much shooting can take place in fifteen seconds. What the hell, let me share another gem:”I’d pay a million, but it’s not up to me. The government”ll pay you (holding up two fingers) $20,000.”

This film is a the kung fu equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting. The plot makes the films of David Lynch films seem like an episode of Flipper. It is too much fun to be missed, especially if you know anyone who has similar brain damage to the main character in Memento. I imagine someone like that would find this film very satisfying. There is much Internet pontification about the fact that the vampires bounce like rabbits. There is little that can prepare you for the sight of them. The big secret at play is that there are no actual robotic vampires. The title Robo Vampire is evidently a lot catchier than A Robot, Some Drug Dealers and Some Bouncing Vampires. This compels me to share one last bit of dialogue I felt was worth recording: “Bless our drugs.”

Night Train to Terror (1985)

When searching the Internet for the director of Night Train to Terror, IMDB shows two names listed with a “more” link underneath. For an episodic horror vehicle, it is not necessarily a bad sign. It is a bad sign when five directors are listed and three of their careers end on this movie. Night Train to Terror is one of the most convoluted films I have ever enjoyed watching. With the subtlety of a baseball bat with nails sticking out of it, the film weaves in and out of extreme gore, convoluted plot lines, and claymation sequences of questionable quality and necessity. There are abrupt cuts to things that are hard to relate to the rest of the story and characters appear and disappear without having any bearing on the plot. They even pull the old “sticking a still shot of a character in place of footage” trick that was made famous in Bruce Lee movies produced after his death. It is hard to believe such a wonderful mess exists. It has singularly lowered the bar for what I consider a bad movie. In theory, the film is broken into three macabre stories. In actuality there are about thirty stories in play at any given time. It is so confusing that it never gets boring. It is as if Mario Bava made a movie in a stock footage room with his eyes closed and his ears plugged.

As an example of the stream of consciousness at play here, the third story involves a Holocaust survivor who sees one of his Nazi captors on television reviewing a ballet performance. The alleged Nazi is in his 20s, so nobody believes that the man in question could have been the head of a concentration camp except for a neighbor who happens to be a police officer. The police officer decides to look into it. You would think that this is a fair enough premise for a twenty-minute horror short, but it doesn’t end there. The Nazi turns out to be a demon who takes an interest in a man who is writing a book called “God Is Dead”whose wife is a surgeon who recognizes that the young man is the devil, or a demon, or something, then decides surgically remove his heart, but then he turns into a bigger demon. And the story goes on and on.

While the stories unfold, God (credited as playing himself) and the Devil (played by Lu Sifer) sit on a train overseeing these events. On the train with them is the real abomination, a terrible 80s band plays the same song throughout the movie. As with many 80s movies, the band breaks out into a spontaneous music video, but this video never ends. By the schedule of the movie, the band must have been at it for hours. Oh, and the train, according to the Devil, is about to crash.

The movie is exhausting to think about, but a lot of fun to watch. Occasionally a narrator (not God, which might make some sense) attempts to explain of what you are seeing, but it seldom does more that raise further questions. It is so bad, it bears repeated viewings. I”m sure I will not remember what Avatar was about in three years, but I will for sure still be trying to figure out what the hell is going on in Night Train to Terror. It is without a doubt one of the most confounding narratives ever created. It makes Plan 9 From Outer Space look like Citizen Kane, and is a must see for the psychotronic crowd.

 

Night of the Lepus (1972)

Night of the Lepus opens with an absurd news expose designed to explain why people should be concerned with rabbit overpopulation. Various bits of stock footage show people all over the world (and, most importantly, Arizona) rounding up the furry creatures and offing them. As the story unfolds, scientists Roy and Gerry Bennett (Stuart Whitman and Janet Leigh) are called in to experiment on the rabbits to find out why they are reproducing so quickly. Cruelty to animals seems to be a primary motivation of the first twenty minutes of the film until a key mammal injected with a growth hormone escapes back into the desert. It is not long before giant footprints begin appearing in the sand. As a member of the audience, it is hard to attach a lot of weight to this discovery, mostly because rabbits are not very scary.

From this point on, the film takes on the pace and tone of a typical “pseudo-science causes some animal to take over the world” scenario.  The rampage begins with shots of people screaming and a reverse close-ups of rabbit faces adorned with swaths of red paint. As the film continues in this vein, the film’s primary flaw holds true: rabbits are not very scary.

As the need to up the ante arrives, we get slow motion shots of furry antagonists terrorizing miniature train set buildings and stuntmen in rabbit suits engaging in hand-to-hand combat with the townsfolk. Occasionally, a character is killed off. It is fun on a lot of levels; the predominant level being that rabbits are not very scary.

The rabbits go on to do a number of uncharacteristic things like growl, dismember locals, cut phone lines, and eat horses. Night of the Lepus has all the charm of the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) when a bunny jumps up and bites a knight’s head off. You might think that 90 minutes of this would be tedious. However, the movie is endlessly engaging for one, solitary reason; I’ll leave you to figure out what that reason is.

Missile to the Moon (1958)

Many cult film enthusiasts pooh-pooh It Came From Hollywood (1982), a compilation style film that predates Mystery Science Theater 3000 where popular comic actors such as Dan Akroyd, Gilda Radner and John Candy riff on clips from low budget movies. The riffage is pretty disappointing and overall the film comes off as unnecessarily disrespectful, but I recall having distinct impressions made on me at a young age regarding the value of low budget fare due to It Came From Hollywood. This mish mash of sewn together clips became a canon of low budget pictures that I actively sought over the years prior to the Internet and, I am embarrassed to admit, even before my family had a video machine. Eclectic fare is far more accessible these days, but in the dark ages, low budget Sci-Fi came on late at night and occasionally on Saturday afternoons. I remember stumbling across Missile to the Moon while the Super Bowl was on another channel one year and being energized by recognizing motorcycle helmet–clad scientists being chased by slow moving rock creatures that really posed no active threat to anyone who was able to move past a crawl.

Dirk Green (Michael Whalen) is the creator of an experimental rocket that the powers that be have deemed too risky to launch. Frustrated, Dirk takes the opportunity of discovering two escaped convicts Gary (Tommy Cook) and Lon (Gary Clarke) hiding out in it to light that candle and travel to the moon. Dirks partner Steve Dayton (Richard Travis) and his girlfriend June (Cathy Downs) run aboard to attempt to stop the blast off and end up tagging along inadvertently. The rocket is launched and the five resign themselves to explore the moon. While on the moon, the group is attacked by slow moving rock people, gigantic spiders, and encounter a society of beauty queens. (Literally. Winners of a beauty contest portray the moon women.) The women don’t take kindly specifically to Jun’s presence and the queen develops some convoluted idea that she is supposed to marry Dirk. As the queen becomes frustrated with the visitors, it becomes apparent that this lone society of women is not as peaceful as they appear to be.

Missile to the Moon is a classic, pre-manned space exploration tale where attractive women live in caves on the moon, wear bikinis, and inexplicably speak English. The 1950s must have been a magical time for comic book artists and filmmakers. NASA sure went and spoiled everything by getting up there and finding a bunch of boring old rocks. Before that, no one had any defining proof that there were no gigantic rock creatures living on the moon.


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