At age 10, wide-eyed Salt Lake City actor Michael Stephenson got what he thought was his big break. He landed the lead role in a major horror film. Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out quite the way he planned. Little did Stephenson know he was signing on to star in what would eventually be dubbed “the best worst movie ever made.” Years later, sitting in his Hollywood office and looking back on the bizarre phenomenon that is Troll 2, Stephenson can’t help but laugh. How could you not?
For starters, Troll 2 isn’t a sequel to Troll. In fact, it doesn’t even have any trolls in it. It’s the brainchild of Italian writer-director Claudio Fragasso (who gave the world such cinematic classics as Monster Dog, Zombie 4: After Death and Rats: Night of Terror). The fact that Fragasso’s grasp of the English language was tenuous at best should have been a tip-off to cast and crew that the film wasn’t exactly destined for the Academy Awards.
Now, 20 years after Troll 2 slipped quietly onto home video and into cult film infamy, Michael Stephenson has revisited the film and its crazed following by directing the documentary Best Worst Movie. The doc just wrapped up a successful film festival run and is about to embark on a brief college campus screening/lecture tour. Stephenson and his film will pass through Albuquerque next Wednesday for a free public screening at UNM.
Back in the late ’80s, however, young Mr. Stephenson’s goals were focused solely on acting. An active member of Salt Lake City’s theater scene, the lad had just signed with an agent when casting directors for a big new horror film rolled into town. “It was my first audition. I went to this little hotel up in Park City, Utah,” recalls Stephenson. “There were people in the hallways lined up holding various pages of the script. I was ushered into this conference room. I remember it being full, wall to wall, with cigarette smoke and hardly being able to see. I was 10 years old, I remember thinking, Man this hurts my eyes! I also remember these 12, 13 chattering Italians speaking in this language I didn’t understand. All of a sudden, out of the smoke emerges Claudio Fragasso, the director of the film. He kneels down, he says, ‘OK, OK. We imp-rovise!’ I kinda stared at him. The next thing I knew, he started shouting at me. He said, ‘Pretend-ah dere’s a spider on you face!’ So I screamed. He said, ‘Pretend-ah you’re in a scary house!’ And I screamed. I just remember screaming a lot.”
Apparently Stephenson’s screams won over the filmmaker. The young actor landed the role of Joshua Waits, a resourceful boy whose family mistakenly moves to a small town overrun by man-eating monsters. The Stephensons’ family joy was short-lived, however.
“My agent sent over the script. So my dad gets the script. My dad’s a very practical, conservative type. Not a creative type at all. I remember him thumbing trough the script and his face slowly growing more puzzled. Finally, at the end of the script, he looked at me and said, ‘I don’t know, Michael. This is a really strange script. Are you sure you want to do this?’ Of course, I insisted. My parents kinda thought, ‘Well, we’re not movie makers. We don’t know about movie magic. Let’s do it.’ And that’s how it began.”
As a wet-behind-the-ears preteen in the midst of a chaotic movie shoot, Stephenson had no idea as to how the film would eventually turn out. “In my mind, I thought I was making the next Gremlins or the next Labyrinth. ... That’s the magic of Troll 2. Everybody thought we were making this great horror film. And we failed miserably.”
That’s not to say there weren’t certain hints. Years later, when interviewing some of the older cast members for his documentary, Stephenson got a different perspective. “Some of the older guys, they said, ‘You know, we went to Claudio and we told Claudio, I don’t know. I don’t think American teenagers would say this this way.’ And Claudio would immediately interrupt them and say, ‘I know what American-ah teenagers say! You read deh lines deh way I write it!’ He had such an authoritative presence that everybody just fell in line. We didn’t want to get fired from our first job.”
After filming wrapped, Stephenson imagined a big Hollywood premiere. That never happened. Instead, a year or so later, Stephenson got an unexpected gift. “It was Christmas morning and I was unwrapping presents. The very last present I unwrapped was this strange-looking VHS tape. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the cover of the VHS tape. It’s nothing related to the movie. It’s not even me on the cover. I remember staring at this VHS tape and thinking, What is this? My mom said, ‘Oh, Michael, it’s your movie! Let’s put it in!’ We put it in, and seven seconds into it our jaws dropped. I remember my dad putting his head in his hands and saying, ‘Oh, Michael. You’ve made a bad movie.’ ”
“Claudio would immediately interrupt them and say, ‘I know what American-ah teenagers say! You read deh lines deh way I write it!’ ”
Michael Stephenson, star of Troll 2
But that wasn’t the end of the line for Troll 2. Michael spent most of his teenage years trying to forget the Z-grade monster movie. He scrounged up the occasional acting role: the obscure family comedy The Paper Brigade, an episode of “Touched By an Angel.” About five years ago, he’d all but forgotten about Troll 2. It was then that he decided to move to Los Angeles and restart his film career. After posting his contact information on social networking sites, Stephenson started to hear from random fans. “Out of nowhere, I started getting these messages on MySpace from these kids who said, ‘We’re fans of Troll 2. Are you Josh Waits? Please say it is so.’ ”
At first, Stephenson was traumatized, thinking the 15-year-old stain on his acting record would never go away. But in time, he heard from more and more fans professing their unhealthy love for the film. “What really got me was, these messages from fans started coming with pictures of five or six kids in a basement watching Troll 2 and eating green cupcakes. It was happening all over the world. They didn’t even know about each other.”
That got Stephenson thinking. “It’s a cliché, but it really was an epiphany: One morning I woke up and I was staring at the ceiling and I thought, Wait a minute. I’m the star of the worst movie ever made.” That epiphany led to Stephenson’s writing-