Symposium

So bad it's good: The kuso aesthetic in Troll 2

Whitney Phillips

New York University, New York City, New York, United States

[0.1] Abstract—The kuso (shitty games) aesthetic draws from and complicates notions of camp and antifandom to provide a way to understand the emotional appeal of bad content.

[0.2] Keywords—Antifan; B movie; Camp; Cult film; Parody; Satire

Phillips, Whitney. 2013. "So Bad It's Good: The Kuso Aesthetic in Troll 2." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 14. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2013.0480.

1. Introduction

[1.1] I like terrible things. My favorite movies, for example, are not "good" movies; my favorite movies, a pantheon of weirdness that includes Troll 2 (1990), The Room (2003), and Jack Frost (1997's romp with a mutant killer snowman, not the 1998 Disney family film of the same name), are breathtakingly bad. They feature lines of dialogue like "Fucker's a snowman!" (from Jack Frost) and "I did naht hit her, it's naht true, it's bullshit, I did naht hit her…I did naht. Oh hi, Mark!" (from Tommy Wiseau's antimasterpiece The Room). The same holds for my favorite television shows, books, art, and whatever else. Poorly made, strange, and generally awful things make me happy, and they have for as long as I can remember.

[1.2] Although my impulse to transpose bad with good might strike some people as odd, I am not alone. There exists an entire genre of "so bad it's good" B-movie fandom. The aesthetic is also pervasive within Internet culture circles; it can be seen in everything from broken memes (that is, variations of a popular meme that get all the details laughably wrong), video aggregators like the Web site Everything Is Terrible! (http://www.everythingisterrible.com/), which spotlights an alphabetized index of comically strange videos, and the online obsession with failure generally, which worships at the altar of ineptitude and technological incompetence. In the following essay, I will both pull from and complicate notions of camp, antifandom, and the Japanese term kuso in order to provide a conceptual framework for understanding the emotional appeal of bad content. Furthermore, I will discuss the ways in which social and economic privilege undergirds the impulse to declare something so bad, it's good.

2. Not quite camp

[2.1] Even though I have long been a fan of questionable content, I often struggle to describe the nature of my interest. Certain aspects of Susan Sontag's (1964) analysis of camp capture the "so bad it's good" spirit: for example, her insistence that camp is "the love of the exaggerated, the 'off'" (279) as well as her assertion that the essential element of pure camp is seriousness. But Sontag's further insistence that the hallmark of camp is extravagance, flamboyance, and unselfconscious garishness—what Sontag describes as "dandyism in the age of mass culture" (289)—doesn't quite line up with the ultimately antagonistic pleasures of watching a film or television show that falls short of its own ambitions. Contrary to the camp aesthetic, which Sontag insists is "above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation—not a judgment" (291), gleeful engagement with poorly made content is inherently judgmental. Bad movies may have a great deal of overlap with camp, and certainly they adhere to Sontag's final statement that camp is good because it's awful (except, as Sontag subsequently insists, when it isn't), but I am reluctant to say that a "so bad it's good" movie is camp—at least not without major qualifications.

[2.2] Similarly, the frequent, usually dismissive assertion that this sort of engagement is ironic (that is, performative or otherwise disingenuous) also fails to account for the genuine pleasure found in terrible things. Although their amusement is derived at least in part from mocking the product of another person's labor, fans of this ilk genuinely like the texts they ridicule. This may be an odd sort of affinity, but the emotional connection is every bit as strong as more conventional forms of fan engagement. Consequently, even the term antifan falls short. These are not people who love to hate a given text. These are people who love to love it, but for all the wrong reasons—reasons that, if repeated to the content producer, would likely be the source of some confusion, if not outright distress: "You were horrible in that film—I loved it!" or "You are a terrible writer—don't ever change!" or "I love how everything you do is the worst!"

[2.3] Although there are no perfect linguistic matches in English—curious, considering how pervasive these behaviors are on the English-speaking Internet—one Japanese term provides a helpful behavioral analog: kuso. The term kuso-ge, "shitty games," was originally deployed as an enthusiastic response to incompetent video game design ("Kuso" 2010). The term has since been adopted by the Chinese-language Web as an efficient response to content that in English would variously be described as camp, kitsch, and irony. Used as an interjection, the term essentially means, "Ha ha, awesome, this is terrible." And that, in a nutshell, is what it means to love bad content. Ha ha, awesome, this is terrible. Kuso!

3. "Nilbog" is "goblin" spelled backward

[3.1] Fan responses to 1990's Troll 2—a film that is neither a sequel nor a film about trolls—provide a shining example of the kuso response. The brainchild of Italian husband-and-wife team Claudio Fragasso and Rosella Drudi, the film, which was retitled in postproduction to Troll 2 in a rather perplexing attempt to capitalize on the meager and entirely unrelated success of 1986's Troll, focuses on a homicidal group of vegetarian goblins. In 95 minutes of screen time, the word troll is never uttered. The main protagonist of the film is Joshua Waits, who is warned by the ghost of his dead Grandpa Seth that Nilbog, the town to which the Waitses are traveling as part of a vacation home house swap, is overrun by "cruel, deformed forest dwellers, spiteful and impudent, vengeful, evil" goblins. As a result of their dietary restrictions, the goblins of Nilbog must first transform their victims into plant-human hybrids, a feat accomplished by tricking humans into ingesting what the goblin queen describes as a "concentration of all the vegetal properties of the earth": green frosting (figure 1).

Screen shot of goblin queen Creedence Leonore Gielgud.

Figure 1. Goblin queen Creedence Leonore Gielgud. Screen shot from Troll 2 (1990). [View larger image.]

[3.2] If the film's premise is absurd, then its production values, writing, editing, and acting are even more so. The film's numerous plot holes are filled in with bizarre dog-ate-my-homework explanations, and the actors almost always seem confused about what's happening in each scene. For example, smack in the middle of Holly Waits's infamous bathroom mirror dance routine (figure 2), otherwise omniscient Grandpa Seth appears in Holly's reflection, bellowing Joshua's name. As he sheepishly explains, he's still figuring out the layout of the new house, and he simply got the wrong room. In another strange scene, homosocial tagalong Arnold finds himself injured on the front steps of a building that is clearly a church, complete with steeple and arched stained glass windows. "Let's go inside this house," Arnold's dying companion suggests. Arnold looks up at the building, befuddled.

Screen shot of woman making a face at herself in the mirror.

Figure 2. Holly Waits's infamous dance scene. Screen shot from Troll 2 (1990). [View larger image.]

[3.3] Even the goblins are inconsistent. Sometimes violent shape-shifters, sometimes oversexed Druidic witches, sometimes inanimate set pieces outfitted in potato sacks and hastily painted Halloween masks, the goblins in Troll 2 can't seem to decide on their preferred MO. They vacillate between reducing their victims to mounds of green slime and transforming them into potted plants.

[3.4] Unsurprisingly, reviews of the film have been less than stellar. Consider the following invectives, collated at the movie review aggregator Web site Rotten Tomatoes (http://www.rottentomatoes.com), on which the film has a 0% approval rating:

[3.5] No description of it can quite contain its misguided ludicrousness or the way its infinite and varied sins against the traits of good cinema combine to produce one of the most uproarious unintentional comedies ever made. (Kendrick 2010)

[3.6] It is a marvel of ineptness, staging scene after scene of total implausibility without a single believable performance, and many lines of dialogue that pose an audacious disregard for coherence. (Taylor 2009)

[3.7] Even bad movies…usually stumble into a good moment or two or at least reveal a brief glimpse of the good intentions that led the filmmakers down the road to cinematic perfidy. Troll 2, however, is a disaster from start to finish. (Biodrowski 2010)

[3.8] Put simply, Troll 2 is a bad movie. It is so bad, in fact, that the film was immortalized in a documentary, Best Worst Movie (2009), written and directed by Michael Stephenson, the actor who played Joshua Waits. In addition to profiling the cast and chronicling the film's difficult production (though producing an English-language film with an English-speaking cast, the Italian director, screenwriter, and film crew spoke very little English), Best Worst Movie examines Troll 2's growing and wildly enthusiastic fan base.

[3.9] Yes, fan base. Because in addition to being extraordinarily bad, the film has also proven to be extraordinarily beloved, as evidenced by nationwide Troll 2 parties, sold-out midnight theater screenings, and extravagant fan art, including a fan-made Troll 2 video game, Troll 2 costumes, and, of course, Troll 2 T-shirts. One fan even got a Troll 2 tattoo—not in spite of the film's significant shortcomings, but because of them. As one fan succinctly explains of his first exposure to the film, "It was pure genius and joy and we watched it a second time right away," a statement followed by his friend's assertion that the film is "the worst movie ever made!" One fan remarks almost reverently that it is "perfectly bad," another notes that the film is a "glorious failure," and yet another, echoing this sentiment, says he and his friends "pass the DVD around like it's a Bible," concluding that they're "missionaries for Troll 2."

4. You have to know the rules to know (or care) when the rules have been broken

[4.1] In addition to providing a textbook example of the kuso response, fan reactions to Troll 2 also reveal the inherent—if invisible—conservatism implied and in fact necessitated by this sort of engagement. Consider the aforementioned scene in which the hapless Arnold finds himself on the steps of a church. According to his vegetal-splattered companion, this structure is a house. But that's not what it is. Anyone even remotely familiar with American religious symbology would immediately realize that the structure is a house of worship, not a house of residence—transforming the statement (possibly the result of a translation error or location scouting mishap) into an inadvertent punch line. Of course, this joke only works if the viewer is able to recognize the iconic form of an American church. Without full and immediate knowledge of the convention, the viewer wouldn't—couldn't—recognize that it had been subverted.

[4.2] Although proponents of the "so bad it's good" aesthetic may appear to subvert the hegemonic meaning of a particular text by imposing some new or wholly unintended meaning (Hall [1973] 1980)—for example, by laughing at a statement or scene not intended to be comical—they adhere to larger and more pervasive cultural conventions that must remain intact for the subversion to function. In the case of Troll 2, these conventions have to do with the "correct" way to write, produce, cast, edit, and perform in a film. Troll 2's scathing critical reviews echo this point, particularly James Kendrick's (2010) insistence that the film commits "infinite and varied sins against the traits of good cinema." A person who does not accept these conventions—which ultimately are arbitrary; they could be otherwise, but they are taken to be natural and necessary—would have no reason to laugh at the glorious failure that is Troll 2. There would be nothing to laugh at.

[4.3] Of course, only those who have fully internalized the rules (about filmmaking, about television production, about video game design, about anything else to which these sorts of conventions may be affixed) will be invested in the degree to which they are followed. Not everyone has the access to the requisite materials, education, or time to pursue these types of leisure interests, nor the inclination to care one way or another. In this way, giddy engagement with "so bad it's good" content is as much an indication of privilege, my own privilege as a white middle-class American academic very much included, as it is an expression of a particular comedic aesthetic. In fact, I would argue that in this case, privilege and kuso are one and the same. You can't have the latter without a certain degree of the former—a point that brings into sudden political focus the overwhelming whiteness of the fan audiences profiled in Best Worst Movie.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] Why does the kuso aesthetic matter? First, it pushes against the borders of fandom itself. This sort of engagement may not behave like "normal" fandom, but it is a kind of fandom—one that calls into question where the line of normalcy can or should be drawn. Second, it challenges the seemingly straightforward distinction between like and dislike, hegemonic and counterhegemonic readings, fan and not-fan, suggesting that our clear-cut definitions are in practice anything but. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it reminds us that the things we like are directly and inextricably connected to our individual social circumstances. Liking things is always political in that it is always informed by larger and more complicated cultural forces, thus casting unexpected but revealing significance over the giddy declaration, "Ha ha, awesome, this is terrible."

6. Works cited

Best Worst Movie. 2009. Directed by Michael Stephenson. DVD. Magic Stone Productions.

Biodrowski, Steve. 2010. "Troll 2 Review." Cinefastique, August 16. http://cinefantastiqueonline.com/2010/08/troll-2-review/.

Hall, Stuart. (1973) 1980. "Encoding/Decoding." In Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972–1979, edited by Stuart Hall, Dorothy Hobson, Andrew Lowe, and Paul Willis, 128–38. London: Hutchinson.

Jack Frost. 1996. Directed by Michael Cooney. DVD. Frost Bite Films.

Kendrick, James. 2010. "Troll 2 Review." Qnetwork, October 10. http://www.qnetwork.com/index.php?page=review&id=2461.

"Kuso." 2010. Know Your Meme. http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/subcultures/kuso.

The Room. 2003. Directed by Tommy Wiseau. DVD. Wiseau-Films.

Sontag, Susan. 1964. "Notes on Camp." In Against Interpretation and Other Essays, 275–92. New York: Picador.

Taylor, Rumsey. 2009. "Troll 2 Review." Not Coming to a Theatre Near You, March 23. http://www.notcoming.com/reviews/troll2/.

Troll 2. 1990. Directed by Claudio Fragasso. DVD. Fimirage Productions.

Troll 2. Rotten Tomatoes. http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/troll-2/.





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