DVD Review: Troll Hunter

Posted on January 2, 2012 by Ben

Review by Ben Bussey

There is a particular potency to films (or stories told in any medium, for that matter) which go to lengths to establish a naturalistic context, then introduce a supernatural element. When we are presented with a story world which we can swallow as real, it gives that bit more power to the presence of the fantastic, making the audience that bit more open to the idea that magic and monsters could truly exist amidst the mundane. The pursuit of this effect has arguably been the principle drive behind the found footage subgenre – well, that and the fact that they’re relatively cheap to make and easy to sell – but just how successful the films have been is, of course, open to debate. As I said in my FrightFest 2011 report, “So often the model seems little more than an excuse for filmmaking on the cheap, and it feels as though for every [REC] there are half a dozen Zombie Diaries. It was a pleasant surprise, then, that a couple of this year’s entries (the other being A Night In The Woods) demonstrated there may well be life in found footage yet. Troll Hunter to my mind more than lived up to the hype, proving not only one of the most entertaining first-person-camcorder films in recent memory, but also quite possibly the best monster movie since The Host.” Over four months and a couple of viewings later, I can happily say Troll Hunter more than stands up to this assessment.

For those who came in late: a trio of media students with a documentary to make have chosen an alleged illegal bear hunter known only as Hans (Otto Jesperson) to be the unwitting subject of their project. Mystery abounds wherever this man goes; he sleeps all day in a mobile home (or RV as y’all Americans call them) that is strangely decorated with odious herbs, whilst by night he ventures out in a heavily armoured jeep garnished with strange slime and what look like giant claw marks. Yet no matter how dangerous the man and his business may be, our young heroes are not about to be deterred. They follow him across rural Norway until at last they get a chance to sneak a peek at him in action, and the truth comes out in a moment which, convieniently, requires no subtitles: with strange lights and noises behind him, an anxious Hans dashes through the dark woods directly towards the young camera crew and roars, “TROLL!”

As great as the temptation might be to compare and contrast Troll Hunter with The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity and the like, in a sense these are not especially relevant points of reference. Where the aforementioned found footage films and so many of their imitators would seem intended as cinematic endurance tests, promising (if not always delivering) suspense and scares of the most intense and realistic kind, Troll Hunter is more interested in provoking a sense of wonder. Witness the climax of the first troll confrontation; once the great beast is defeated, the terror of the students gives way to an almost hysterical joy. Learning that fairy-tale creatures are real gives them a whole new outlook on the world, and from that point on they can’t be dragged from Hans’ side. It’s easy to see why. Deep down, who wouldn’t like to believe that magical monsters actually exist somewhere in the real world? The armchair cryptozoologists, parapsychologists and/or Fortean Times readers among us will certainly find much to relate to. And, given how gorgeous the snowy woodland and mountain range settings are, I wouldn’t be surprised if the film does wonders for Norway’s tourist industry, and troll hunter friendly hostels pop up in abundance.

And yes, those trolls really are the ace up the sleeve. Found footage has long been open to criticism for how much it leaves unseen; yes, we can nod to Val Lewton, argue for the power of the imagination and the importance of making the audience do some work, but just as easily we can complain of a lack of imagination and invention, and an easy excuse for technical incompetence. Troll Hunter avoids this beautifully as, while the titular monsters are not onscreen all that often, when they are they are clearly visible and – no word of exaggeration – absolutely breathtaking to behold. It is here that District 9 and Monsters seem considerably more appropriate reference points than Blair Witch or the PAs; the astonishing believability of the creatures is only enhanced by how clearly low-budget the production is overall, by comparison with major Hollywood productions at least. Comparisons with Cloverfield are also easy to make, but happily the camerawork here is considerably less wobbly and nausea-inducing than in Matt Reeves’ New York monster movie, and indeed so many other found footage films. (I doubt I’m alone in saying the inevitability of motion sickness plays a large part in putting me off the subgenre. What can I say, I have a delicate disposition.)

There are of course sociological speculations aplenty to be made from this film, and how enthusiastically it has been received internationally. The notion of mythical creatures existing and religious beliefs having a real, quantifiable power is certainly an attractive one to many in these theologically turbulent times, and we always have an appetite for films that tell us our governments are lying to us, concealing secrets so huge they could change the world. But I hardly imagine writer/director André Øvredal or co-writer Håvard S. Johansen are overly concerned with such matters, preoccupied as they are with simply giving us something to smile about. That’s the key thing that makes this film such a breath of fresh air in this day and age, when near enough every new horror film of note is on a mission to shock and appal. When all is said and done, Troll Hunter is a light-hearted, even family friendly fantasy (a bit of bone-crunching aside, the 15 certificate is scarcely warranted) which is exciting, funny and captivating in a manner that harks back to the good old days of Harryhausen. To my mind, we don’t get nearly enough films of this kind; or, at least, not ones that are actually good. (I’m looking in your direction, Clash of the Titans remake.)

Troll Hunter is released to Region 2 DVD and Blu-Ray on 9th January, from Momentum Pictures. The disc boasts plenty of deleted/extended/alternate scenes, visual effects features, and the option to watch it dubbed into English for those of us who are too lazy to read subtitles and/or impatient for the inevitable US remake. Our friends at Cult Labs would also like you to know there’s a nice Fanhub site and a fun little Facebook game out there for your online entertainment.