Norse Mythology and the B-Movie in ‘Troll Hunter’ (2010)
Scandinavian cinema is renowned for maudlin flourishes and gloomy explorations of the human soul – take Ingmar Bergman’s searing miserabalist dramas and family sagas like Persona, The Seventh Seal and Fanny & Alexander. Bergman made experimental, chic films that really got under the skin of his characters. Hop over to Finland and you’ll discover auteur Aki Kaurismaki whose sparse film The Match Factory Girl became an international hit. Contemporary Norse filmmakers like Lukas Moodysson and Susanne Bier continue to make highly intriguing and provocative films within their own shores. A blossoming trend, though, is for top directors from the north to head to places like Hollywood and the UK film industry to make movies. Lone Scherfig (An Education) Nicholas Winding Refn (Drive) and Tomas Alfredson (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) are all examples of this movement.
2010 creature feature and mythological spectacular Trolljegeren (‘Troll Hunter’) doesn’t really fit into any traditional ideals of Scandinavian filmmaking. It is neither art house experimentation nor serious drama but an entirely different creature altogether – creature being the crucial word here. Troll Hunter is a faux-documentary style film about a gang of eager Norwegian college students. The students are making a film about a mysterious bear hunter, who turns out to be a troll hunter working under cover for the Norwegian government. Comparisons to the tiring Blair Witch Project are obvious but truthfully it is its closest cinematic companion, with its surplus of hand held camera work and direct-to-camera monologues given by actors investigating a mythical phenomenon.
One of the more curious aspects of Troll Hunter is the way it explores traditional beliefs of Scandinavian folklore in a thoroughly modern context. It could easily have been adapted as a classic Norse fairytale for the screen, framing it in a well-worn ‘good vs. evil’ narrative. But director André Øvredal has taken the mockumentary route, a long favourite of director Christopher Guest, and is all the stronger for this referencing. This is in part due to Norway itself, and Norwegian folk history. It is a country steeped in a rich mythological heritage, and thus the viewer’s ability to take on the image of a ten-foot troll stumbling through a twilight forest is arguably couched in the fabric of social belief. Furthermore, I would argue that the great thing about successful mockumentary films is that no matter how ridiculous the subject matter, a voice inside of you whispers that there is a chance that it is all true. Troll Hunter is one such film. Dialogue delivered straight to camera by resident troll tracker Hans (Norwegian comic Otto Jespersen) is devoid of irony or any hints of the ridiculous perceived by the viewer. In Troll Hunter the combined authenticity of the mockumentary approach and the spellbinding DIY special effects encourage the viewer to believe in all manner of fairy tale creatures, including freaky-looking trolls.
In Norse mythology trolls are represented as being in equal parts misshapen and hairy, and are capable of turning to stone when exposed to sunlight. This specific theory is tested in rather comical fashion in the film as we see a three-headed troll emerge from a wood to blasts of ultra-violet light from a gun strapped to the back of a truck. Is it a postmodern take on Bilbo’s encounter with the trolls in The Hobbit? During the course of the film the meta-filmmakers go into wonderful detail about the various types of trolls, including their dietary conventions, habitat of choice and striking physical appearance. Did you know trolls can apparently smell the blood of Christians? One of the camera guys unfortunately learns this the hard way when cornered in a cave by a family of Mountain Kings: he turns to God. Big mistake apparently. This can actually be linked back to ancient beliefs that trolls were associated with the devil and as such could be conquered with Evian bottles full of holy water. Either way, the trolls represented in Troll Hunter are a world away from the Moomins. They are vicious and brutal and have no qualms in destroying whole stretches of forest, or in chomping on a few hundred livestock. A scene where Hans is tasked with extracting some blood from a rogue troll is suitably violent. It takes place under an atmospheric bridge: a nice little pun on the classic ‘troll under the bridge’ fairytale. Dressed in a kind of makeshift bear-suit made of rusted pots and pans, Hans is picked up and smashed to the ground in one fell swoop.
The B-movie is a joyful guilty pleasure in cinema. From the science fiction films of the 1950s, to modern day titles such as Ace Hannah’s Mega Shark VS Giant Octopus (starring 80s pop-star Debbie Gibson), B-movies make viewers shriek with laughter whilst also often scaring the shit out of them. Troll Hunter offers a less camp take on the B-movie phenomena then, say, Attack of the 50ft Woman does, though it definitely borrows traditions from this style of moving picture. You can draw comparisons between this film and titles like Tarantula where the film’s set up is about an impossible scientific anomaly – in Tarantula’s case, giant spiders. The heart of the movement lies in its subject matter, and that can certainly be said about Troll Hunter. It is a film that delivers exactly what you’d hope its’ title suggests. Troll Hunter fits into a rapidly-growing trend in modern filmmaking that revives B-movie-style plots and premises. Titles like the recent Hobo With A Shotgun and Tarantino and Robert Rodriquez’s Grindhouse double bill, Death Proof and Planet Terror have sought to recapture the giddy thrills and splatter gore from the glory days of the B-movie.
Though operating on what must be a fraction of the average Hollywood blockbuster’s budget for special effects, Troll Hunter turns this to a considerable advantage by fashioning a roster of Jim Henson-style creature designs – but designs that are finished off with a polish of CGI magic. It’s similar to the effect Spike Jonze achieved in his adaptation of Maurice Sendack’s children’s book Where The Wild Things Are. A breed of troll the size of a small mountain-range roaming through the snowy Norwegian wastelands is in particular a technical wonder. As we witness this lumbering snow beast through canted angles and shaky camera work it is hard to curb a breath of wonder.
Troll Hunter suffers from narrative problems throughout – there are way too many point-of-view shots looking out of car windows onto the wet Norwegian countryside. However, it is a resounding technical achievement and a fascinating, if slightly odd, film.
Christopher Smail is freelance film writer & editor. His work has appeared in New Linear Perspectives, Trisickle Magazine, British Cinema Online & Brig Newspaper