Sundance Review: “The Troll Hunter”
With this Bizarro World trek through the fjords, fields and mountaintops of wintry Norway, Andre Ovredal joins a select group of European filmmakers who have clearly paid attention to Hollywood’s lessons — particularly the class on creature-features old and new — without negating their own cultural sensibility.
Picked up pre-Sundance by Magnolia genre division Magnet Releasing (and by Universal Pictures International for most of Europe), The Troll Hunter injects inventiveness, folkloric idiosyncrasy and deadpan humor into the overexploited faux-documentary trend. A generous dollop of Jurassic Park inspiration doesn’t hurt, either.
The idea comes from the same verite school as The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield, in which we watch video shot by characters for purposes other than our entertainment. As in those films, a necessary suspension of disbelief perforates the dramatic integrity. (Does no one ever get scared enough to abandon the camcorder in these scenarios?) But Ovredal, a seasoned commercials director, knows how to spin a captivating yarn.
The conceit here is that 283 hours of mysterious footage has been found, and after extensive investigation, it is concluded to be authentic. It blows the lid off the Norwegian government’s cover-up of the troll problem plaguing the country, accounting for rampant livestock carnage, felled trees and random devastation, usually written off by the shadowy Wildlife Board as the work of renegade bears.
The filming ostensibly began when an unlicensed-bear-hunter alert prompted an enterprising bunch of student filmmakers to go on the investigative trail. Gung ho nerd Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud), who sees himself as the Scandi Michael Moore, is the trio’s yappy on-camera reporter, flanked by sound recordist Johanna (Johanna Morck) and mostly unseen cameraman Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen).
They pursue the alleged poacher, Hans (local comic Otto Jespersen), whose foul-smelling trailer and ferociously gouged jeep suggest he grapples with something nasty. Initially this gruff cynic is hostile to the crew, but he relents and lets them tag along after a brush with a marauding troll during which Thomas gets bitten. Turns out Hans is tired of doing government dirty work and welcomes the exposé. In a nice subversive stroke, his one stipulation is that atheists only need apply because trolls respond to Christians like sharks to blood. Naturally, this plants the seed for a closet believer in the mix.
During a series of frightening encounters, we get a glimpse of the various species of woodland and mountain trolls, learning their quirks and vulnerabilities. They are nothing like those cute tuft-haired ’70s trinkets. With life spans up to 1,200 years, these stupid predators range from towering three-headed ogres to galumphing cave dwellers that look like gnarly versions of Snorky from The Banana Splits. Their toxic farts feed into a judiciously low-key strain of Monty Python-esque humor.
When power lines are knocked down, the rogue crew ventures north toward the most dangerous showdown of all, with the Wildlife Board giving chase.
Ovredal follows the lead of such pre-eminent monster movies as Jaws and Alien by withholding full visual access to the trolls for as long as possible. This strategy is justified by perpetual half-light, murky forest locations and night-vision goggles. When the creatures are finally seen, the CGI work is impressive.
Some plot turns don’t entirely hold water in the exciting climactic stretch, and the agitated handheld visuals can grow wearying. But this is an original and highly assured fusion of B-movie lore and fairy-tale terror. The premise might be absurd, but the filmmaker and his able cast show unwavering commitment to the story’s elaborate mythology.
Park City at Midnight
Distributor: Magnet Releasing
Director-screenwriter: Andre Ovredal
Cast: Otto Jespersen, Glenn Erland Tosterud, Hans Morten Hansen, Johanna Morck
Producers: John M. Jacobsen, Sveinung Golimo
No rating, 104 minutes