Sometimes, if you want some real cinematic innovation, it pays to keep an eye out for the cool stuff being developed all over the world, for that is where some of the most interesting surprised are going to come from. And interesting and surprising most definitely apply to the biggest Norwegian dark fantasy film to hit the silver screens since…well…um…probably since those words were first strung together in a sentence, because there probably aren’t a whole lot of Norwegian dark fantasy films of any kind. Anyway, let’s talk about the Troll Hunter.
The movie is in the form of a documentary being filmed by three college students—Thomas, Johanna and Kalle—who are on the trail of what they think is a poacher who is illegally hunting bear. Turns out, the guy they’re after—a grumpy recluse named Hans—isn’t particularly hard to find. The problem is, he won’t play ball with these kids who clearly have no clue what they have stumbled upon. But the students won’t let this lead go, and as they track Hans into the woods one night, they discover the old guy’s secret—that he is a professional troll hunter who singlehandedly does battle with the various kinds of lumbering sub-giants who have haunted the less populated corners of Norway since folks were taking longboats to work. Now the students are really interested in Hans, who normally prefers total solitude. But after a lifetime of risking his neck for the Troll Security Service and having little to show for it, he decides to let the students ride along with him so he can finally reveal the secret that the Norwegian government would rather keep a lid on: that trolls are real, and that it takes a guy like Hans to go around killing them so that they don’t occasionally wander into some town and destroy a bunch of houses and eat a bunch of children. It’s a crap job, but somebody’s got to do it. And more importantly? Somebody’s got to get it all on camera.
This movie enters some sometimes creepy territory, but it’s never particularly scary. It is more of a reminder of that old European myths and folklore almost never had very happy endings, and they usually involved more than a few innocent (or at least careless) people getting killed. But the interesting thing about the Troll Hunter is that it’s at least 33% mockumentary, with a lot of ultra-dry humor woven in. Multiple cast members are actually Norwegian comedians, so the humorous undertone of the Troll Hunter is probably appreciated a lot more by somebody from the home country. But the observational humor throughout is strong enough to take the edge off of things and we start to wonder, exactly why did Hans ever take this job, anyway?
The Troll Hunter is also an interesting take on the found footage approach, in general. Thanks to its dark fairy-tale matter, and its black humor, we begin to get the feeling that we’re not in any serious of being scared, even if the characters we are watching are in serious danger of being killed. What that does is take us out of the action, but in a good way. We begin to think that as horror movies go, this one has such low stakes that it frees us up to begin thinking about the story in meta terms. Like how the protagonists—and by extension, we in the audience—are willing to leave the normal world behind for the purposes of filming the unusual. They venture into dangerous territory, no matter how many times they are warned off, no matter how much they break the rules of survival, no matter how much they know that their excursion into a place better left explored is the kind of thing that almost always becomes a one-way trip.And after enough of this, you begin to understand why Hans is so grumpy all the time. If you told three university kids a dozen times that this film project is most likely going to get them killed, wouldn’t you kind of give up on expecting people to act with any sense of self-preservation?
All this comes to the fore during our moment of truth, which involves the death of our cameraman, Kalle. Without giving too much away, he seals his own fate by breaking one of Hans’ rules about staying safe around trolls. Now, in Halle’s defense, when he breaks the rule, he kind of does it in a way that anybody can appreciate. The guy has been filming monsters stomping around his country’s backyard, so he’s entitled to a few slips of logic from time to time. He just didn’t think they’d get him killed. (RIP, dude, RIP.) But the great part about it is when we meet Kalle’s replacement, whose very identity makes it impossible to repeat the conditions that lead to Kalle’s death. When the film crew asks Hans about this, about how the realities of the modern world might create a kind of metaphysical loophole with the rules of the ancient world, Hans just kind of shrugs and admits that he won’t know what it all means until it is put to the test. It’s a supreme moment of offhanded dry humor that says something deeper about this movie, and about the traditions it draws upon. Seeing Hans and our camera crew hike across into the bleeding edge of ancient folklore with a modern rules interpretation is really funny. But it’s also a bit chilling to see Hans so casual accept it, because if whoever’s adjudicating the rules that trolls live by decides that maybe everybody needs to die just to be sure, there isn’t a lot of room to maneuver. The old ways are like that. It probably explains why nobody ever brings a lawyer into a fairy tale. The monsters would just eat them first.