Review: Troll Hunter, 2011, dir. Andre Ovredal

I’m typically not the person who finds himself in admiration of “found footage” movies; more so than most titles that fit under that umbrella, they’re more slavishly devoted to a formula that doesn’t tend to vary from entry to entry. Naturally, that footage has to get found at some point, so we have a much more explicit idea of what’s going to befall our protagonists than we do even when we watch genre movies that don’t fall under that sub-category. Once in a while, though, a movie like Cloverfield or Paranormal Activity comes along and boasts either an impressive pedigree and scope, or proves effective despite the trappings of found footage cinema, and rises above its brethren on one level or another.

Troll Hunter falls under column “B” here. Rumbling in from Norway, Troll Hunter doesn’t pull a whole lot of punches or waste much time with its basic conceit– as you might imagine from the title, the film is about trolls and the hunting of said fantastical creatures. Reality, of course, doesn’t jibe with what we read in fairy tales or see on television. The trolls here are wild animals, left alone by the Norwegian government until they saunter out of the woods or the mountains and into human-inhabited areas. When that happens, well, just look at the title and you can guess for yourself. The eponymous figure, Hans (Otto Jespersen), becomes the target of a group of college kids who mistakenly believe him to be a poacher, and their ignorance naturally leads them to find that when he wanders into the wilderness in the dead of night alone, he’s actually blasting aberrant trolls with a UV lamp and turning them to stone.

From the start, Troll Hunter admittedly feel like watching any other found footage movie– until the students have their first confrontation with one of the beastly creatures. Typically, found footage pictures lead their protagonists to uncover the antagonist of the narrative and then spend much of the movie trying to avoid whatever eldritch or supernatural being that that happens to be. Troll Hunter‘s protagonists react with curiosity rather than horror, though, and decide to join Hans as he goes about his business and tries to determine what’s causing the recent influx in troll activity outside their own territories. The ensuing film is more an adventure of discovery more than a straight horror movie.

Describing Troll Hunter as a movie about discovery sounds trite though; after all, discovery ostensibly marks the inception of each found footage movie, wherein blurbs detailing the nature of how and, most importantly, where the film turned up  precede the actual picture and emphasize the fact that somebody somewhere came across the film in question by happy coincidence. But unlike its cinematic cousins, Troll Hunter is about more than just the faux-unveiling of previously unseen footage– it’s also about the excitement of discovering something new and amazing. In the aftermath of witnessing their first troll, our trio of youths very nearly celebrate the experience while Hans disposes of the creature’s remains. There’s a palpable danger in each subsequent troll encounter, but the film never relinquishes its sense of wonder as the students delve deeper into Hans’ world and garner more firsthand knowledge of the creatures he’s tasked with keeping under control.

The monsters themselves look fantastic. Andre Ovredal, someone who I’ve never heard of before but whose work I’ll be curious to learn more about, clearly embraces the philosophy of “less is more” and the results work very, very effectively. Troll Hunter doesn’t skimp on design and imagination, but Ovredal knows that his trolls work much better when their presence is teased at or veiled. Even better, there’s variety in the design of each species of troll; some are squat and some are tall (and some of the tall ones are much, much taller than others), some are muscled and some are just plain rotund, some have fur, others don’t. Part of the difficulty in making a movie like Troll Hunter lies in embracing the silliness of the material without letting the story play like a nondescript reel of schlock, and I think the film succeeds in finding that balance between being campy and straight-laced partially through the great work done on making the mythical monsters feel like a real and knowable species; there’s something inherently goofy about a race of rock-eating, dimwitted creatures with ridiculous nasal endowments, but we buy their existence and the threat they pose regardless.

It’s not just the trolls themselves that help lend credence to the proceedings, either. Playing Hans, Otto Jespersen adds to the film’s atmosphere in the no nonsense, straight man approach he takes to his character and in doing so further bestows a sense of
reality upon the film. He’s a Roger Murtaugh-type, grizzled and burned out by his utterly thankless and hazardous job; he makes for a refreshing take on the chief knight or dragon slayer figure. In another movie, seeing Hans fill out a paper form after each troll kill– marking down every minute detail about the troll from its gender to its location– might have played for laughs, but it’s Jespersen’s dead-pan visage that sells these elements and keeps them from making plot points read as punchlines.

Troll Hunter‘s not perfect; even at an hour and forty minutes, it feels about ten minutes too long, and probably could have been edited to clock in at ninety minutes just by cutting out extraneous footage of the students driving around in either their car or Hans’. Certainly the film’s pacing isn’t bad, but at points it trips up slightly and drags things out while we’re waiting for the next troll encounter. (On the plus side, these moments showcase how beautiful Norway’s countryside is.) But these are minor quibbles to take with a movie that’s so much fun and one that does such a great job breaking away from genre expectations; at the end of the day, Troll Hunter is a real gem of a monster movie more than capable of giving you goosebumps and thrilling you with some great monster craftsmanship and a strong leading performance.

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