The horror mockumentary is a format that offers only limited narrative options. That hasn’t prevented it, in the decade since the unexpected success of The Blair Witch Project, from being appropriated by seemingly every single horror subgenre (with the notable exception of the slasher movie, for obvious reasons), with few significant changes to the original formula. It would be easy to dismiss Trollhunter as more of the same. Except André Øvredal, who wrote and directed the film, seems acutely aware of the strengths and limitations of the format. By shifting the film’s focus away from the horror, choosing instead to concentrate on its human (and troll) subjects, he manages to escape those very limitations, and to bring new life to the format.
Trollhunter begins with the usual disclaimer that what we are about to see is actual footage that was edited by a third party after the disappearance of its authors (though the film’s last scene mercilessly and hilariously mocks the very idea that any of it is real). Indeed, it starts off like a Norwegian version of The Blair Witch Project, with three film students going off into the woods to make a documentary not about a local legend, but about a man suspected of being a bear poacher. There’s Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud), the leader of the group; Johanna (Johanna Morck), who’s in charge of the sound; and Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen), who remains behind the camera almost at all times. The three track down the alleged poacher, Hans (Otto Jespersen), to the trailer park where he resides, but they are rebuffed every time they attempt to approach him.
So they do what everyone would do in their situation: they stalk him. Not that Hans is particularly hard to track, given that he drives a Land Rover with huge gouge marks all over its doors. One night they follow him into the woods, where they hear very un-bear-like roars. Just as they are wondering what the hell is going on, Hans comes rushing towards them, ensconced in heavy hunting gear, and stops long enough in front of the camera to yell, “Troll!” before running off into the dark.
It’s a very funny moment, and one that also establishes Hans’s incredible screen presence. The hunter is a big, scruffy-looking man, who looks even bigger and fiercer with his hunting gear on; whenever he is onscreen, it’s impossible to take your eyes off of him. The film rests almost entirely on Jespersen’s performance; his Hans is a fascinating character, at once dignified and goofy (at some point, he dons a full suit of makeshift armor, complete with a helm that looks like a metal bucket). No wonder Thomas and his friends decide to follow him even before they learn that he is not, in fact, a poacher, but a troll hunter.
Monster hunters not named Van Helsing tend to have a bad reputation in movies. They go around wearing necklaces of werewolf teeth, shooting innocent bystanders if they stand in the way, and enjoying the hunt just a little too much. More often than not, they end up being worse than the actual monsters they’re hunting.
Hans isn’t that guy. He’s a government employee, working for the Troll Security Service, whose mission it is to make sure that trolls remain on their assigned territories, and to kill those that wander out of what basically amounts to reservations. Hans hates his job; the hours are awful, the pay is bad, and there are many occupational hazards. And try having a social life when you’re constantly covered in troll stench. When asked why he is letting Thomas, Johanna and Kalle film him, he explains that his going public might force the government to do something about his working conditions. Hans doesn’t even enjoy killing trolls; he does what he does because, well, somebody’s gotta do it.
Hans’s reservations about his job are what make Trollhunter’s more than yet another Blair Witch Project knockoff. Instead of going for cheap chills, Øvredal explores the social and political ramifications of the trolls’ presence in Norway. The Troll Security Service is a hilariously incompetent bureaucratic agency that cares nothing for the trolls themselves, while Hans has come to feel a certain affection for the giant oafs. We get to see more than a few trolls, and while they are all uglier and more dangerous than the last, there is indeed something almost touching about them. Their level of intelligence is that of an animal, Hans explains. By all rights they should be treated like an endangered species; instead, their existence is kept a secret so as not to alarm the population, and they are killed summarily to protect the masquerade. At some point, Hans recalls the time he had to slaughter every single troll on a particular territory so that a railway could be built. For an instant he is a shell-shocked war veteran; then he straightens up, slathers himself in some more troll stench, and goes back to work. Because somebody’s gotta do it. And it might as well be someone who knows and respects trolls.
The mockumentary format is a perfect fit for Trollhunter. It allows Øvredal to make a hugely charismatic figure such as Hans the focal point of the story, and makes the trolls more enigmatic than monstrous. Yet Øvredal’s Norway is such a rich, fascinating, and beautiful place (there are multiple gorgeous shots of nature throughout the film), that I sometimes wished we got to see more of it. That would imply something bigger than a horror mockumentary, though, when a lot of the film’s charm comes from its small scale. Rest assured that the upcoming American remake will probably mess that up, though.