Since the release of The Blair Witch Project over a decade ago, the found-footage, or ‘mockumentary’ genre, has carved quite a niche for itself. A favourite with filmmakers due to the cheap production costs and real-time scares, the genre is based in high-concept ideas which don’t put much emphasis on plot of character. Such films can often be described in simple sentences – Godzilla from the point of view of the public, a zombie outbreak in a locked apartment complex, or a couple haunted by bumps in the night. The simplicity of concept allows for some interesting ideas which occasionally don’t work – Apollo 18 anyone – but generally there’s a lot of room for originality. And so we have Troll Hunter, Norway’s answer to the mockumentary canon – an unusual film with a unique hook, Troll Hunter manages to do a lot with its bizarre premise, standing as one of the most surprising films of its year.Like The Blair Witch Project, Troll Hunter begins with a group of three students setting out to make a documentary – this time on illegal bear poaching. The students – Thomas Johanna and cameraman Kalle (Glenn Erland Tosterud, Johanna Mørck and Tomas Alf Larsen) become drawn to the mysterious and gruff Hans (Otto Jespersen), believing the strange man to be some kind of bear poacher, and decide to follow the man. However, it soon becomes clear than Hans hunts something slightly larger than your average bear – he’s the eponymous character, the troll hunter himself, a man who works for the TSS (Troll Security Service) and spends his night hunting giant monsters in the forest. Sceptical at first, the students soon deal with trolls first hand, and realising they’ve got a much bigger story in front of them than some bear poaching, they follow Hans on his mission. Weary with his employers, the Norwegian Government, who work to cover up the existence of the trolls, Hans allows the students to document, as long as they do everything he says. But as the students follow Hans from forest to mountain to icy plains, will they find the troll story slightly too big to handle? Or is there a good reason why trolls are kept so secret?One of the most striking things about the film is how detailed its mythology is. Øvredal treats trolls as animals and makes them seem realistic without abandoning their Norwegian folklore. And so whilst we get the lore of old – the blood of a Christian man, goats on bridges and destructive sunlight, we also get scientific explanations – trolls turn to stone in sunlight because their bodies can’t process Vitamin D into calcium for example – which means the film manages to successfully walk the fine line between the supernatural and the scientific. The trolls have names – Jotnars, Ringlefinchs, etc –and come across as both zoological animals and fairytale creatures. It’s nice to see a film go so far in shaping its monsters, borrowing from folklore but filtering the past with a modern twist.
And the trolls look wonderful too. Considering how small the film’s budget must have been, the special effects are for the most part very impressive, and there’s a sense of reality to the giants similar to the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Øvredal really uses the mockumentary style to his advantage here – he’s never afraid to show us his monsters when they’re on screen, but the poor quality camera and night time shooting keeps them looking realistic – in a conventional film these special effects would probably be pretty unconvincing. The low handheld camera also gives the creatures a real sense of scale. All of the troll sequences are fantastic, and each encounter is larger than the last. The film isn’t scary as such, aiming for thrills and fun, and seems to be aware of how ridiculous its premise is; there are some subtle self-aware nods to the audience throughout and moments of comedy.
Even more impressive is how good the film looks despite its limited lens. In what is perhaps the strongest element of the film, Øvredal shoots a kind of love-letter to the Norwegian countryside, giving the audience a lot of beautiful shots of lakes and forests and mountains. For a Western audience, this is unfamiliar territory, and it looks simply stunning – enough to make viewers think about taking a trip to Norway on their next holiday. And Øvredal keeps the scenery moving – we start in the woods, move to the mountains, and end on the vast, snowy Northern wastes, which look incredible. There’s a real beauty to the backgrounds, but also a sense of danger and foreboding, with both characters and viewers not being sure exactly what lurks in the vastness outside. A lot of the suspense of the film’s final act comes simply from shots of the endless frozen plains, and just knowing that there’s something huge is out there. Troll Hunter is a surprisingly beautiful movie.The film isn’t however, without its problems. It suffers from slow pacing and a lot of the exposition scenes scattered throughout the film could have been cut; by the time we reach the ending things begin to drag. They’re also some strange plot discrepancies – it really makes no sense that the government would need to cover up trolls if they’re simply big animals, and surely it would put Norway’s public in danger not knowing about the beasts. And the death of a character towards the end of the film is strangely ignored which comes across as contrived and unrealistic. Unlike say, The Blair Witch Project, there is nothing keeping these students here – they can leave at anytime, and when people start dying, perhaps it’s time to call it quits. The students themselves are fairly forgettable characters, fine acting but there’s nothing remarkable about them, and they don’t stand out in the way that Ángela Vidal or Heather Donahue did.
Otto Jespersen however steals the movie. As the troll hunter, he comes across as a gruff, surly man, weary of his job and uninterested in the people around him, but Jespersen manages to be likeable and intriguing too. We get hints that he finds killing the trolls cruel but everything is kept very subtle, and the small elements of his backstory we get only make the character more interesting. Better still, the workaday way in which Hans treats his outlandish, wild job is actually rather funny, and his character and the performance of Jespersen really leave an impression.Troll Hunter isn’t perfect, and it’s not the best of the mockumentary movies. But it works for what it is – a great monster movie which is fun rather than scary, with some beautiful scenic visuals and a fun title performance from Otto Jespersen. It’s just very enjoyable to watch. Inevitably, Hollywood will remake this sooner or later, so catch the original whilst it’s still fresh.