Troll (1986): He’s With the Band

While not the biggest fan of the film itself, Matty looks back at an important title in the Empire Pictures library. 

There’s a great deal to enjoy about TROLL (1986) — but, as a whole, the film straddles a divide between the sublime and the subpar.

An awkward blend of horror and fairy tale — “Poltergeist (1982) meets Tolkien” is how helmer John Carl Buechler described it — this plodding family romp’s cardinal flaw is the way its quality fluctuates from scene to scene. For every stylish or robustly staged sequence, there’s an equally rough-looking or shoddily choreographed one hot on its heels. An FX man by trade, Buechler struggles with Troll’s lighter moments but proves a dab hand with the film’s more menacing and fantastical elements. He generates a satisfying amount of age-appropriate suspense and intrigue and, of course, delivers a cornucopia of nicely realised FX via his company, Magical & Makeup Imageries (MMI). Of them, it’s the title fiend that’s the standout. While the rest of Troll’s eye-catching spread of goblins, elves and nymphs appear derivative of the sorely missed maestro’s superior work on fellow Empire Pictures opus Ghoulies (1985), right down to a few Ghoulies themselves ‘cameoing’ as background players, the snarling, squat Torok ranks among Buechler and Empire bigwig Charles Band’s most endearing creations; a wonderfully expressive mini-beast whose tactility and aesthetic charisma is bolstered by the physical talents of the man wearing the creature suit, Phil Fondacaro.

Previously collaborating with him on Hard Rock Zombies (1985) and Band’s 1984 portmanteau, The Dungeonmaster, Buechler rightly insisted upon casting Fondacaro from the off, and even fashioned a second, non-creature role to showcase the 3’6” actor’s towering dramatic skills. Though Band was skeptical (according to Buechler, the producer initially wanted established dwarf performer Billy Barty), the fact that he’s since built such compelling programmers as Ghoulies II (1987), The Creeps (1997) and Decadent Evil (2005) around Fondacaro speaks volumes. As with his wholly convincing inhabitation of Torok, Fondacaro’s performance as terminally ill English professor Malcolm Malory is a stunner. Where the former brings the comic book malevolence, the latter provides Troll with a poignant and life-affirming core that, along with Richard ‘brother of Charlie’ Band’s magnificent score, transcends the weaker sections of Ed Naha’s ambitious yet undercooked script.

Indeed, despite managing to lace the story with an authentically fablelike quality — a milieu the one-time Fangoria editor would return to on his subsequent Empire assignment, the significantly better Dolls (1987) — Naha comes a cropper with the rest of Troll’s characters. Mother and daughter duo June and Anne Lockhart imbue their older and younger incarnations of white witch Eunice with a pleasing tenacity, and Michael Moriarty, Shelly Hack, Sonny Bono, and child stars Jenny Beck and Noah Hathaway (fresh from The NeverEnding Story (1984)) mug gamely. Alas, their parts are hollow and each of them suffer from Buechler’s misguided belief that shouting Naha’s dialogue automatically makes it funnier.

Still, irrespective of its flaws, Troll is an important text in the annals of cult movie history. In addition to spawning an infamous rogue sequel beloved by fans of clag cinema and perhaps quietly ‘inspiring’ a certain other hugely successful multimedia series about magic and a kid named Harry Potter (!), Troll is the film that introduced Buechler to Band. Without it, there’d be no Trancers (1984) and no Re-Animator (1985) — or, at least, not as we know them considering Buechler’s vital contributions. 

Having spent the first few years of the ‘80s crafting FX for a bunch of Roger Corman flicks (Forbidden World (1982), Sorceress (1982), and Deathstalker (1983) among them), John Carl Buechler was becoming restless. During the shooting of Aaron Lipstadt’s Corman-backed sci-fi, Android (1982), Buechler pitched the film’s producer, Rupert Harvey, an idea called ‘Goblin’, in which a small, gremlin-type monster would systematically slaughter the denizens of a fleapit motel. Harvey was impressed. Corman wasn’t and passed on the project. Continuing to ply his trade as an FX artist, Buechler was introduced to Band by mutual acquaintance Peter Manoogian. Wanting Buechler to oversee FX on the recently launched Empire’s inaugural batch of movies, Band used ‘Goblin’ as leverage, promising to let the aspiring director make it should he join the Empire fold. Further sweetened by a $2million contract, it was an offer Buechler couldn’t refuse. Latex-slinging duties on Trancers and Ghoulies came first — and following Band tasking Buechler with directing a segment of the aforementioned Dungeonmaster as a kind of audition piece, ‘Goblin’ was given the greenlight. Band’s sole stipulations were the film be renamed Troll and its gory, monster-on-the-loose trappings be retooled into something closer to E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982). Buechler and a by now along-for-the-ride Naha — another Corman graduate — happily acquiesced. A scuzzy motel became a San Diego tenement, and a murderous monster became a magical troll wanting to take over the world with his army of mythical critters and supernatural topiary.

Lensed at Empire Studio’s in Rome (on sets that were then recycled for David Schmoeller’s claustrophobic chiller, Crawlspace (1986)), Troll landed in U.S. cinemas in January 1986. And though the film’s eight-hundred screen theatrical release didn’t quite reach the blockbuster heights Band intended, Troll found an appreciative audience on video and generated a fair bit of pre-release hype in the mainstream press for Empire’s next slate, Eliminators (1986), From Beyond (1986), and production mate TerrorVision (1986) (which Troll was shot in tandem with).

Naturally, the busy Buechler was on FX duty for the lot of them.

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