Wednesday, November 09, 2011

They Might Be Giants

I really wonder what the hell is going on in Norway right now. I mean, in the last couple of years, we've had Dead Snow, Norwegian Ninja, and now Trollhunter (2010, directed by André Øvredal). All three of these movies work perfectly well as genre films, and you can watch them as such and have a grand old time. But, man, these films are all merciless put-ons, and I can totally forgive anyone who sees them as being entirely too goofy to take seriously. Is this what Norwegian cinema is generally like? Because if it is, I think Norwegians might be fun people to party with. Certainly, these films aren't as dour as the movies that come from their neighbors in Sweden (or, perhaps, what the rest of the world gets from Sweden), though the Finns are apparently in on the joke given the nature of Rare Exports last year.

Trollhunter is a lot of fun. I've spent most of October decrying the fact that the monsters in the horror movies I've been watching are all pretty lame, but here's a film that knows how to build a goddamn monster. The trolls in this movie are imaginative designs drawn from the darkest European myths. More than that, they give the monsters an actual ecology. The entire conceit of the movie--it's a s0-called "found footage" film about a film crew that follows a troll hunter who works for the Troll Security Service--is an excuse to learn as much about the habits of trolls: How they live, what they eat, how to kill them. The filmmakers obviously had a blast working all of this out, because it has the kinds of insane details usually reserved for documentaries. It knows how to riff on those details, too. The troll can smell a Christian man and Christians enrage them, for one example, but what about a Muslim woman? "We'll see how it goes," our titular troll hunter deadpans when she joins the film crew.

The story here follows a trio of journalism students who think they've stumbled onto a story when they don't trust the "bear" explanation for a series of animal mutilations. While investigating this, they notice a dour figure they take to be a bear hunter whose Land Rover shows a number of suspicious dents and scratches. What the hunter is actually hunting is something other than bears, and after much pestering, he agrees to let the kids follow him. His motivations? Troll hunting is a shitty job and he wants to agitate for better working conditions. This is one of the film's funnier jokes. Otto Jespersen plays the troll hunter, a character that was probably inspired by Steve Irwin, but who Jespersen makes his own. The troll hunter is dry, surly, and no nonsense and if the movie has a human star, Jespersen is it. The movie also includes his shrill superior at the TSS, one Mr. Finn, who is every government bureaucrat ever filmed translated into Norwegian. Seriously, if William Atherton spoke Norwegian, he would have been perfect for the role. The kids themselves? Well, they're mostly off camera, so we don't get a lot of character development from them, other than the fact that one of them lies when asked if any of them are Christians. He pays a steep price for that later in the film.

The trolls are pretty awesome special effects--Hollywood no longer has a monopoly on really cool special effects, it should be noted--and there is an agreeable variety to them. We get forest trolls, mountain trolls, and even a troll that hides under a bridge and is baited with goats. Some of the tasks our heroes have to perform, such as drawing blood from a troll before killing him, are designed to give us a window into the lives of trolls. They have a reason to be cranky: confined to designated areas, obsessed with a shrinking population of Christians, plagued by a vitamin D deficiency so bad that sunlight will turn them to stone, it's hard to be a troll. I like how shaggy the trolls are in this movie, and how much character their physiognomy gives them, with those great, bulbous noses and their unkempt beards. These are the kinds of creatures that I would imagine for myself after being raised on a diet of art by painters like Brian Froud and Alan Lee.

Norway itself is the other star of the film. The landscapes on display in Trollhunter are spectacular and the filmmakers capture it with that end-of-the-world Scandinavian light that infuses every Bergman movie. If Sven Nyqvist had shot a monster movie, this is what it would look like. Trolls aside, this is a terrific tourism reel for Norway. And if Norway is actually the physical location of Jottunheim, well, that's all of a piece, too, I think. When that place name came up, all I could think about was the Norse gods and their endless wars with the frost giants, and, sure enough, the movie actually gives me a frost giant. Whatever the movie's other shortcomings may be, it actually keeps the promises that it makes. This makes me happy.

Of course, it's not all skittles and beer. This is, as I say, a "found footage" film and it manifests all of the shortcomings of the form. I've already touched on one shortcoming: our trio of filmmakers are required to be off-camera for most of the film, so the emotional impact of their misfortunes later in the movie are kind of blunted. Another flaw in the format is the abrupt way it ends, and the questions that ending raises, though some of these are sidestepped by some footage of real-life Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg asserting that Norway has trolls and that they effect the placement of electrical towers, and by the disclaimer at the beginning of the film that the filmmakers made every effort to determine if the footage was "real." It's a good joke, but perhaps a little bit arch.

Still, this stroked my seasonal need to see a monster movie. I'm a monster kid at heart, after all. Other monster kids of whatever age are duly advised that this is time well spent.

Current tally: 36 films

First time viewings: 33

And so ends this year's October Horror Movie Challenge. All told, this was a good year. I'm not even burned out on horror movies, which is the usual risk I take with this event. I even managed to write substantial posts on every movie I saw, which was my primary goal this year.

I'll be taking a little time off from genre movies as I decompress, but Almodovar's new movie, a horror movie, no less, starts here next week, so it'll be a short rest. Meanwhile, there's a Citizen Kane blogathon running right now, my local art house is running a series on film noir (called "No Happy Endings"), and I already have a backlog of non-horror movies to write about.

For now, though, I'd like to extend thanks to everyone who participated in the challenge in the blogosphere and on the Facebook page. The Facebook page will remain open for business all year, so feel free to join if you'd like. There are lots of great folks talking about horror movies there. I'd like to thank everyone who wrote about their movies. Finally, I'd like to thank my awesome friends, Renee Knipe, the Rev. Anna Dynamite, Matt and Janet Gwinn, and Shelly J. for putting up with me for the last week of October. I hope everyone has a great holiday season and I hope to see everyone doing the challenge again next year.


Chris Hewson said...

What's Norwegian Ninja? I've never heard of that.
Have you ever seen a Swedish film, Storm? That was a geat film! (And strangely compared by many to The Matrix, even though it has as much to do with The Matrix as Dr. Mabuse)

Vulnavia Morbius said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Chris,

I haven't seen Storm, unfortunately, but now I'm interested. This is Norwegian Ninja.