Like Cannon Films, Charles Band’s Empire Pictures was a company whose films were omnipresent at video stores and on cable t.v. throughout the mid-to-late ’80s. Empire’s output could be as diverse as Cannon’s but a lot of it had a distinct in-house style. That style could be defined as incorporating a lot of special effects, blurring lines between genres and embracing a vivid pulp fiction sensibility. Troll was one of the early Empire productions and shows all these characteristics. It’s weighted a bit more toward the family-friendly side of things but delivers all the FX-infused, genre-bending pulp an Empire flick requires.
Troll focuses on the Potter family moving into a new apartment building: as mom Anne (Shelley Hack) and pop Harry (Michael Moriarty) settle in, oldest child Harry Jr. (Noah Hathaway) notices strange changes coming over his formerly sunny little sister Wendy Anne (Jenny Beck). It is soon revealed she has been possessed by the spirit of a troll, who uses her body as a vessel to bump off the other apartment tenants – an eclectic gaggle that includes everyone from Sonny Bono to Julia Louis-Dreyfus – and use their bodies to recreate its troll universe. Harry Jr. must team with magic-savvy neighbor and tough cookie Eunice (June Lockhart) to save his sister and stop the otherworldly menace.
Troll is the kind of quirky b-movie fare that doesn’t get a broad release anymore. On the commercial side of things, it’s got a lot of sitcom-style broad comedy, a PG-13 take on elves and faeries-style fantasy and at times has a kind of ersatz “Spielberg production” feel to it with its thematic focus on protecting the family (there’s more than a bit of Poltergeist baked into the premise).
However, Troll also has a wild side to it: like a lot of Empire productions, it allows the grown-up genre kids behind the camera to run wild and make the cost-conscious pulp spectacle of their childhood dreams. Screenwriter Ed Naha mixes horror and fantasy in an interesting way, spiking it with a bit of comedy here and there. He also achieves some unexpected poignancy, especially in a moment where a terminally-ill little person (played by Empire/Full Moon fixture Phil Fondacaro) uses fantasy metaphors to explain to Wendy Anne how he has dealt with illness since childhood.
Director John Buechler comes from a makeup FX background so the film is packed with an array of self-designed creatures – the title character is an impressive design – as well an array of visual effects like stop motion animation and matte paintings. He sometimes allows the comedy to get too broad but the film is too good-natured to deny. More importantly, he doesn’t let a reel pass without a burst of monster kid-friendly special effects (look out for the famous sequence where a barrage of hand-puppet trolls sing a kind of Latin mass for the title character).
Finally, Troll has the kind of once-in-a-lifetime b-movie cast that wouldn’t be possible at today’s filmmaking costs. Hack and Moriarty play their parental roles with deadpan effectiveness: Moriarty doesn’t get to do his usual Method actor wildness here but a Risky Business-inspired moment where he air guitars and lip-syncs to “Summertime Blues” is one of his most out-there screen moments. Lockhart brings a sharp wit and heroic toughness to her mentor character and fans of The Neverending Story will enjoy seeing Hathaway in another kid-friendly fantasy. Elsewhere, if you’ve ever wanted to see Sonny Bono play a swinger that gets transformed into an enchanted forest, this film gives you your wish.
Simply put, Troll is a fun flashback to the mid-80’s glory days of Empire Pictures. It’s cheap thrills roll out at a quick clip as it bounds between genres and packs in an array of hand-crafted old school special effects. Genre kids of the ’80s wouldn’t have it any other way.