By the time Psycho came out, color was the norm. Hitchcock chose to shoot in black and white for two reasons. The first, and most important, is that he was insane. The second was that he was a genius. See, Hitchcock knew something very important: we don’t look at films the way we perceive reality. At the time, newsreels in movie theaters were black and white, so despite the world actually existing in color (as it had since at least, like, the Crusades or something), shooting Psycho in black and white would link it with the news in the subconscious of the audience, and thus something that actually happened. By making it less realistic, he was able to make it more real.
My first encounter with found footage was Man Bites Dog, a 1993 Belgian mockumentary about a serial killer. I remember liking it a great deal and still even occasionally reference it, though no one else knows what the hell I’m talking about. Soon after, like almost everyone else at the time, I saw The Blair Witch Project. Peer pressure’s a bitch. Anyway, I discovered it organically, just like Artisan’s marketing department wanted me to, first as rumors circulated breathlessly by my friends. I never once thought Man Bites Dog was anything but fiction, but Blair Witch had me going until I sat down to a bootleg screening at a friend’s house and started to see the cracks in the storytelling. Both films were interesting primarily for what they said about the way we perceive our world. Video cameras (or portable television studios, as Doc Brown might say) had been around for awhile, but they were expensive and bulky extravagances. The technology had gotten both cheaper and smaller, meaning that recording devices were just starting to become ubiquitous. We were beginning to see our world through the lens of a camera.
I am a bit of a sucker for found footage, which plays in the same arena Hitchcock did. Some of it is the genuine love I have for low budget filmmaking, in finding the creative ways they work around having no money. Some of it is that found footage helps do a bit of the heavy lifting when it comes to suspension of disbelief. And some of it that is when done well, there is nothing quite as thrilling. There might be no better example of found footage done well as 2010’s Trollhunter.
The film begins almost exactly like Blair Witch with a group of college students doing a film project. In this case, they are investigating a possible poacher among the local bear hunters. This is a good time to mention that the film takes place in Norway, the land of vikings, and apparently their idea of a good time is still going out and hunting the number one threat to America. The hunters, without exception, are suspicious of a man named Hans, believing him to be either a poacher or not a bear hunter at all. The crew immediately turns to investigating Hans, discovering his reeking floodlight-covered trailer, his Land Rover covered in long rents like claw marks, and that he stays out all night every night. So either he’s operating some kind of mobile disco for grizzly bears, or he’s up to something equally unsavory. The plot thickens as another possibly poached bear is found near where Hans was last seen, and it is surrounded by tracks the local hunters swear could not have come from the animal.
The crew tails Hans one night to a back country road, which is closed with a No Trespassing sign and follow him out into the Norwegian woods, fueled only by journalistic courage and queasy jokes. Eventually, they begin to hear odd sounds in counterpoint to flashing deeper into the forest. As they grow closer, Hans rushes from the trees shouting, “Troll!” The crew flees in panic, and on the way out of the woods, they pass their car, which has been totaled and is covered in some kind of slime. As things calm down, Hans agrees to take the crew out the following night, only after extracting a promise that they will obey him no matter what. On this hunt, Hans finds his quarry from the previous night, a three-headed troll. It is at this point that shit gets real for the crew. In the midst of panic and hiding from the tree-sized beast, they film Hans grumpily battling and eventually killing the monster with focused UV light.
Hans is a troll hunter employed by the Troll Security Service, a government agency in charge of safeguarding the citizenry from these not-actually-mythological creatures. Hans dryly explains (with all the interest of a plumber going through the kinds of drain clogs) that trolls come in two major varieties, mountain and woodland trolls, which are further split up into species with evocative names like Rimetosser, Ringlefinch, Mountain King, and Jotnar. His businesslike comportment and working class weariness defines him: any wonder he once experienced at seeing these magnificent animals has entirely vanished. He sees them as disgusting and stinky behemoths to be destroyed, and then cataloged on the bureaucratic forms that provide one of the film’s sharpest gags.
Blue collar heroes struggling against the supernatural is another of my favorite tropes. It’s probably inevitable for any child of the ‘80s to attach particular resonance to Ghostbusters and its spiritual children. Though I have nothing against someone fighting the darkness because it’s The Right Thing To Do, taking on the same challenge for a small paycheck is infinitely more appealing. What kind of person does that? Even in this economy, they have to be qualified for something slightly less dangerous, right? And let’s be honest, treating something as bizarre as hunting trolls, busting ghosts, or slapping werewolves as just another day at the office is funny as hell. Trollhunter is not a comedy the way Ghostbusters is, but it has a great deal of fun with the legends surrounding trolls, the tools and methods you’d use to effectively fight these monsters, and just how stupid these things really are. The man playing the titular trollhunter, Otto Jespersen, is a comedian in Norway. I have no idea what his act is like, but he plays this role role with deadpan seriousness. It’s the perfect decision, giving the character both gravitas and making him seemingly unaware of how bizarre his life truly is.
From everything I’ve read, Trollhunter contains numerous references to Norwegian culture and folklore. You don’t have to understand these callbacks to appreciate the film; it’s a fine piece of work regardless. The mere presence of these idiosyncratic moments serves to give the movie depth, so even as we foreigners don’t truly understand, we can see the craftsmanship on display. The best moment is the last shot, as the filmmakers somehow manage to steal a truly incredible quote from an elected official.