“I Know You Hated It…”
A Look Back at 1986’s “Troll“
Troll is a 1986 film produced and distributed by Charles Band’s Empire Pictures label. The film was directed by beloved creature creator John Carl Buechler, who also assembled the crew responsible for the film’s effects. This crew included quite a few effects artists who would later become well-known names in the industry, such as John Vulich, Cleve Hall, Howard Berger, and more. Troll features a large and eclectic cast of notable faces, such as Michael Moriarty, Sonny Bono, “WKRP”‘s Gary Sandy, a then-unknown Julia Louis-Dreyfuss (who’d rather we not remind anyone of her involvement in this film), both Anne and June Lockhart, and, of course, diminutive actor Phil Fondacaro in a dual role.
The film focuses on the Potters, a family that have just moved into an old apartment building in what might be San Francisco (but is actually somewhere in Italy). More precisely, the film focuses on the Potter children: young Wendy and her older brother, Harry Jr. That’s right, folks! The main character is named “Harry Potter”, long before JK Rowling ever debuted her “boy wizard”. “Wendy” was played by an 11-year old actress named Jenny Beck, who had previously appeared on the popular-miniseries-turned-short-lived-series “V” , as well as the television series “Father Murphy”. “Harry” was portrayed by teen actor Noah Hathaway. Hathaway, who had been acting for years by this point, had previously appeared on “Battlestar Galactica” (alongside Anne Lockhart), but is best known as “Atreyu” in 1984’s The NeverEnding Story. Troll served as Hathaway’s follow-up to the widely successful film. Needless to say, lightning would not strike twice for the young actor.
On the family’s first day in the new building, Wendy is abducted by the film’s titular creature, played wonderfully by Fondacaro, for whom Buechler tailor-made the creature costume. A powerful and evil magician, the troll is able to take Wendy’s appearance, but her newfound bizarre behavior immediately makes Harry Jr. suspicious. As he tries to figure out what has happened to his little sister, the troll is posing as Wendy to gain entrance to the apartments of the building’s other residents. Here, he stabs each with a needle protruding from his green-jeweled ring, which converts their bodies into Body Snatchers-like pods, which burst open to release small forests, as well as a myriad of small mythical creatures (none of which happen to be other trolls). The transformations appear to be anything but “quick and painless”, and the humans are, for all intents and purposes, dead.
With the help of an old witch who lives in an apartment above his, Harry Jr. not only learns that the troll is attempting to recreate his own world, thus overtaking ours, but also how to defeat the vile monster….. which he never really does. During a battle with a much larger monster, it is not Harry Jr. who strikes the fatal blow, but the troll itself, in defense of Wendy! As the film ends with the troll still very much alive and, essentially, starting again with a new victim, there is solid argument that Harry Jr. did nothing more than delay the inevitable.
As part of the home media deal that Empire Pictures had with Vestron Video at the time, all of their films were to receive theatrical release, even if only in a limited number of theaters or for a short release window. As such, Troll was released in just under 1,000 theaters on January 17th, 1986. The film was a modest success, pulling in over 2.5 million dollars on its opening weekend, which made Troll the second-highest debuting film for that week and eighth overall. Troll was demolished by that week’s other new release, Iron Eagle, and fell just behind successful hangovers like Rocky IV and Jewel of the Nile, as well as Oscar contenders The Color Purple and Out of Africa. Troll had a 2 week run in theaters, although it did receive a third week in theaters where it performed well.
I was among those that saw Troll in theaters on its opening night. For years, the circumstances of how I ended up in that theater were always quite amusing to me. That is, until now. Now, I’m forced to question just how much damage those years of “last calls” and dabbling in mind-altering substances has really caused because everything I thought I knew about how I ended up at this screening just can’t be as I’ve convinced myself.
You see, for years, I believed that I went to see this film as a “consolation”. I believed quite clearly that we had family members visiting us from out of town, having ourselves only moved to our new town a year or so earlier. Some cousin of my mother, or something like that. I thought that we had taken them out for dinner, and at some point the conversation of movies had been brought up. One way or another, my older sister and brother (or, at least, the ones that lived with me) were now on their way to one of the local theaters with the cousin to see a movie. That film? A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge!
Now, I didn’t know much about Freddy at this point in my young life. I do not believe I had even seen the first film yet, as this was still at the point in my young life when said sister and brother had convinced me that horror films would scar me for life. I’m not even sure if I really even knew who Freddy was. I knew he wasn’t Jason, although they shared the same hobby of killing teens. All I knew is that if everyone else was going, I wanted to go as well.
My mother shot that notion down quickly, probably for the wiser. That did not sit well with 9-year old me, which means I probably threw a temper tantrum. Presumably just to shut me the Hell up, my mother agreed to take me to another film of my choice. I can’t tell you what my other options were, but I picked Troll. Mom was always the “romantic comedy” type, had never heard of it, but as it was only PG-13, she agreed to take me.
Let’s stop things here for a moment. Part of what I’ve just told you is total bullshit! The biggest flaw in this story is that Freddy’s Revenge opened in November of 1985, and well out of theaters by this point. So, unless the theater randomly decided to bring Freddy back for one weekend a month and a half later, my siblings did not go to see that film that night. While I am now perplexed as to what they actually watched that night, I am admittedly more amused by the fact that every time I’ve replayed the memories of that night in my head, I’ve really just been lying to myself.
There remains some chance that my siblings watched Freddy slash the screen that night, I most assuredly went to see Troll. How can I possibly be sure of this claim when I’ve already admitted to deluding myself on the other details of that night 33 years ago? Easy. My mother reminded me. Often. In fact, she never let me forget it.
Now, I won’t lie and say I had anxiously been waiting to see this film. I may have seen the trailer for Troll during a prior trip to the theater, but I know I saw the commercials on a local UHF station. While, in retrospect, I do feel that the trailer reveals too much, I know it had shown enough to get my attention. As I detested The NeverEnding Story even as a child, the casting of that film’s star meant nothing to me. What did interest me were all those funky little creatures!
I remember being somewhat rattled by how gruesome and unnerving the film’s first death seemed. Here was Sonny Bono, the only name in the cast that my mother may have cared about, twitching and convulsing while slime drips from his mouth and large green veins bulge from his face… and in the first 10 minutes too!! This was actually a little scarier than I had expected, but still managed to draw me in.
By the time Troll had reached its ending, I was a fan. Mom, however, was not. I remember feeling a little insulted when, on the drive home, she remarked, “That was the stupidest movie I have ever seen!” She proceeded to tell the rest of the family this when we got home. As much as I had enjoyed the film, she hated every minute of it. Knowing that I was responsible for making her sit through this misery only made me love the film more. It was “our movie”, if you will. I no longer cared about Freddy, and arguably wouldn’t until Dream Warriors released in 1987.
Troll was later released to home video. Here, as well as through frequent airings on HBO, the film developed a sizable cult following. Of course, I knew none of this until well into the internet age. While I continued seeking out the film at video stores or on my television, I can’t say I ever came across any other fans of the film. Someone, here or there, may have watched it, but they usually didn’t have much positive to say about it, if at all. This reinforced my belief that I was the only person that enjoyed this film. It also fed the notion that maybe Mom was right in her critique of the film. Either way, I was good with it.
Imagine my shock when I discovered that a sequel, Troll 2, had been released! I couldn’t wait to watch it, especially since it was still the early 1990’s and the rest of the world had not yet extolled it as the “Best Worst Movie” to annoying levels. More importantly, I couldn’t wait to tell my mother the news! As expected, her response was a visibly confused, “Dear God! Why?” I was, in relatively short time, able to find Troll 2 either on cable or at a local Mom and Pop, and immediately had to watch it! Like any sensible person, I quickly realized that the film was total shit and shut it off without finishing it. That was my experience with Troll 2 for at least 20 years. Now, I still think it’s “shit”. Amusing “shit”, but far from the best “shit” out there. So far from!
As the years have passed, and I’ve watched innumerable other films, I’ve found other films to champion. Some of these have become my all-time favorites. I won’t lie and try to sell you on the idea that Troll is one of my all-time favorite films. I still very much enjoy the film, and am still impressed with how it managed to succeed while still being so undeniably bizarre. However, it will always remain one of my most memorable movie-going experiences, if only because it was one that I share with my mother alone, and one that would become and remain a running joke between us for years to come! Mom? Well, she still thought it was just awful, and continued to tell anyone that asked.
I have yet to share Troll with my own children, but do believe that moment will soon come. I look forward to hearing their thoughts and watching their reactions to this relic from my childhood, but highly doubt that they will respond to it in the manner that I did when I first watched the film. That said, I also do not expect them to have the same reaction that their grandmother (Abuela) did.
In the years since the film’s release, many of Troll‘s cast and crew have passed away. Sonny Bono, June Lockhart, and effects artist John Vulich, are all no longer with us. The hardest loss for fans of the film, and fans of tiny evil monsters in general, came on May 18th, 2019, when John Carl Beuchler lost his fight against Stage IV prostate cancer.
Just months later, on September 22, 2019, Mom would also pass away after her own insanely short fight with Stage IV lung cancer. As I sat there on a bench outside of the hospital on her final night, reflecting on the time we had together and where our lives had taken us…. of all things, I found myself thinking back to that cold January night at the theater watching Troll, and I couldn’t help but be thankful for that moment and just how much it still means to me.
Thank you, Mom! I know you hated it… Lord, do I know you hated it…. but you hated it for me.