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In the high mountains of Norway, legends tell of creatures that live in deep caves and dark forests, grotesque beasts that can grow to immense size and feed on the blood of Christians. In modern times, these tales are dismissed as folklore and bedtime stories to frighten little children in their beds. Or so most think. On the rain-soaked roads of the Norwegian countryside, documentary film crew university students Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud), Johanna (Johanna Mørck) and their cameraman Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen) are trying to keep up with Hans (Otto Jespersen), who the government claims is illegally poaching bears. They track him to an isolated campsite where his dingy camper is covered in a foul smell and rigged with some peculiar lighting equipment. They are told he is out all night, every night and only returns in the light of morning. So they wait. When he arrives, he is decidedly exhausted and miserable, telling them to get lost. His battered Land Rover is a host of intimidating dents and rather curious slash-like marks that cut right through the steel body. Still thinking he’s poaching bears, they continue to follow him from a distance as he ventures about the countryside, stopping near bridges, and traveling on ferries. Eventually, one night, they find themselves on foot, deep in a black forest where they see through the trees a sudden strobe of lights and hear terrible wails shrieking in the distance. Not long after, Hans coming running toward them and screams in fear, “TROLL!”
Directed by André Øvredal, this Norwegian language film is another in the recent found-footage genre that manages to use the gimmick to exceptional good use. Taking itself seriously, carefully and factually bringing to life all the tropes that comes with trolls, the film has a rugged, brutal authenticity that remains charming for its obvious adoration of the fables and commitment to seeing it through right to the end: Trolls exist and the government knows it and have being keeping it secret for centuries. That the film lets this be the central conceit rather than the trolls themselves, gives the movie a depth that most others in this genre fail to achieve. Now we have a reason to learn about the creatures and understand their domain. Clever twists like the truth behind high-powered utility lines are just some of the fun Troll Hunter has with mixing legend and reality.
The trolls themselves are wonderfully envisioned. As in lore, there are a number of different species and have varying defining characteristics (though all the names were made by the film makers). Multi-headed Tosserlad trolls tower as high a tree; bulky Ringlefinchs live under bridges and are lured out by goats, Dovregubbens are small but ferocious and live in the caves, and of course the Jotnars, the mountain dwellers that can reach heights of 200 feet (60.9m). Recently, they’ve been encroaching more where people live, causing property damage and more. Hans, working for the Troll Security Service (TSS), a network of secret government employees that keep track of and maintain the troll population, is sent to investigate. He invites the students to follow, feeling it’s time to make this story public, much to the dismay of his boss who will stop at nothing to prevent the film makers from publishing their findings.
As realistic and grounded as it is, Troll Hunter is not devoid of humor, though it never aims for comedy. What it does is present a situation in a serious context and lets the audience find the joke. It’s smart and clever. Take for instance when Hans quite seriously asks the students if any of them believes in God or Jesus. The students are perplexed by the question, vaguely remembering fairy tales of a troll’s sense of smell. But we get it. So too is the bridge troll who is drawn from the dark by a goat. And how Hans doesn’t use a gun per se (though there is a shotgun in his camper) to hunt his trolls, sticking to the rule that trolls can’t survive in sunlight by either exploding or turning to stone, or rather total calcification. Roger Ebert held this as an issue for some lapses in logic in his review, remarking how sunlight helps create vitamin D, which builds calcium, asking how does a troll get enough calcium to die from it. He understood though that the film’s premise can’t directly answer the question. Either way, Hans fires a UV light gun and spotlight at attacking creatures, and it’s amusing to see the results. These are funny and work surprisingly well, never detracting from the suspense but reminding us we are in a fairy tale.
The larger message from the film is a little less opaque. Director Øvredal claims it’s about protecting the natural treasures of this world, and that seems fairly well buried as most of the action is about destroying the creatures on screen rather than actively protecting them, though Hans and the TSS are supposedly taking out the rogues that are too close to human populations. More likely we can relieve ourselves of trying to apply some grander theme and simply accept it for what it is, a Blair Witch style movie that actually features the title characters (unlike Blair Witch that had a surprisingly low count of witches).
Overall, Troll Hunter succeeds because it respects the audience, creating a believable world that, especially given the format, must feel real. What’s better is that we want it to be real. As dangerous as the creatures are, like the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, there is a sadness that they can’t exist as they are shown, and so we marvel at them on film and let our imaginations do the rest. While the film can’t possible answer all the questions it poses, there are some bumps in the road, most notably with some pacing in the middle and a few lapses in physics. Still, a fun, suspenseful and sometimes scary monster movie, Troll Hunter delivers.
Scene Set-Up: As they encounter more and more trolls, Hans and the students track trolls from a farm where a patch of trees have been uprooted. The trail leads to a nearby abandoned mine where Hans deduces that a pack of Dovregubben trolls are living. It’s dark and damp, and the students are apprehensive but follow the hunter into the cave’s mouth. They find a series of dead ends and bits of partially eaten animals. They decide it’s best to leave, but then a rumble echoes through the caverns. They are not alone.
The Scene (Timestamp 01:07:52): They make a run for the entrance but coming in are a pack of trolls, so they turn around and head for the back to a small cave where they all squeeze in. The trolls are unaware they are there, so Hans and the student lie still and wait. Hans even falls a sleep, hinting that this may not be the first time he’s been in this type of situation. However, Kalle, the student cameraman grows ever more restless. He is not just a little scared. He is terrified. Clearly something is wrong. Well, more wrong than a pack of trolls within arms reach. When he confesses that he is in fact a Christian, things turn sour fast.
The moment is shot almost entirely in night-vision green, giving the scene an erie, voyeuristic feel. What’s more important is that Kalle is holding the camera, as it is he who becomes the focus of the incident. We see what he sees. And it works with just the right amount of fear and humor. That credit goes to Øvredal, who handles this all with a deft hand and knowing eye. He also pays off some debts in this moment to set-ups propositioned earlier. First is the troll stench. As the trolls approach, Kalle frantically applies as much troll stench as he can, rubbing it all over his extremities. Earlier, Hans required the students to scrub themselves clean and then douse their bodies in the urine and feces of the creatures to hide their human smells. They initially refused but reluctantly agreed. Now, deep in an inky black cave with a horde of trolls in biting distance, Kalle is eager to smear as much possible all over his body. More importantly is the Christian blood. And for that pay off, you will have to watch. Suffice to say, it is a turing point in the film and creates the necessary motivation for the actions of all involved in the third act.
The great thing about Troll Hunter is is sense of wonder, something many monster movies lose sight of. The trolls progressively get more interesting, but so to does the story that involves them. This is a hunt worth taking.