The first-person horror movement born in the wake of The Blair Witch Project has resulted in movies as good as Paranormal Activity and as bad as Paranormal Activity 2, but all up and down the chain of quality, one thing has remained constant: virtually all of these movies are interesting primarily because they are shot with a first-person camera, using that gimmick to prop up an otherwise uninteresting, boilerplate script (viz Cloverfield), or crafting narratives that effectively could not exist without that gimmick (as the aforementioned Paranormal Activities).

And this is part of what sets the Norwegian import Trollhunter apart from the pack, if not necessarily in the best possible way: never before can I recall watching a first-person movie, and thinking to myself almost every step of the way, "My God, this is a very good movie, and it could have been actually great if they'd just filmed it like an actual, normal motion picture". Yes, the verisimilitude is a nice touch, and if I am not mistaken, this same verisimilitude kicks off a bit of light social satire that I'm far too American & therefore dense as a bag of hammers to notice; but it's also hugely distracting, particularly around the point that the camera-averse main character decides to let these camera-hoisting college kids follow him around on his highly secretive and classified job because... aw, fuckit, just because (there is an actual reason given - he's tired of the lies and hiding and all - but given that it's dropped right after it's done its duty as a plot contrivance, it's hard to take it seriously).

So that's a thing. But beyond that thing, and I'll admit that the first-person stuff adds a very nice flavor to some of the big scare scenes, Trollhunter is a damn fun movie, a mock-serious monster movie that manages in one fell swoop to commit fully to building a remarkably deep and complex internal mythology that is inspired by real folklore, but by no means reliant upon it; to present four characters who all seem real beyond the edge of the camera frame; to showcase some of the absolute best CGI monster effects that I have ever seen (undoubtedly, the lo-fi video quality helps here); and to be successfully thrilling and horrifying, good things as always for a horror-thriller to be. I can't remember the last American genre movie that even attempted to do all of these things at once, let alone managed to do them all successfully. Point to the Norwegians.

The film follows three young people trying to make a documentary: Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud) is the director, Johanna (Johanna Mørck) is the sound recordist, and Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen) is the intermittently-seen cameraman. Their film is about one thing or another, and this is part of where my frustration with the frame narrative sets in. The three filmmakers are so quickly swallowed up in a new situation that their background simply doesn't matter. That said, they're either making a movie about the hard life of bear hunters, or a movie about a poacher, a hidden figure who kills bears without a license and vanishes without a trace. Or so people think. In fact, once the three kids catch up with this hunter, Hans (Otto Jespersen), they learn in fairly short order that illegal bear-hunting is just his cover: in fact, he is the Norwegian government's sole fully-trained troll hunter. The filmmakers naturally don't even attempt to hide their initial disbelief of his stories, right up until the point where they find themselves running from a three-headed beast in the woods, taller than any of the trees.

There are three things that allow writer-director André Øvredal's monster movie to rise above the level of perfectly tolerable - and before I name them, I want to make it clear that the very fact that Trollhunter is a perfectly tolerable monster movie is already a triumph. These things are the film's straitlaced, extraordinarily dry sense of humor; the wit and intelligence with which Øvredal grounds traditional troll legends in the blandly scientific business of a man for whom these are just big, dangerous animals; and Otto Jespersen. Nor are these three things entirely seperable, especially given how much of the comedy and how much of the rock-steady grounding of the fantastic elements are based in the steady, crabby-old-man performance given by the shock-comic in his first starring role. He plays the role as seems, in retrospect, to be the only way it could be played, as just a hunter, getting old and frustrated with the bureaucracy he has to deal with, aware of the constant danger around him, but so seasoned at this work that he can't help but be good-natured about it. Jespersen was even nominated for Best Actor at the Amanda Awards, Norway's national film prize, and it's not terribly easy to shake off the feeling that it was perfectly justified.

Not all the humor and intelligence come from that actor and his character: there are some immaculately wry visual gags (one involving a bridge that was one of the great delayed-reaction moments I have experienced in ages of the whole theater getting the joke after it sank in for a few seconds, and all breaking out laughing together), and the mere fact of seeing trolls, with all their trollish behavior brought into the modern world, is balanced so finely on the knife-edge between terror and absurdity, sometimes it's hard not to smile in admiration (the weird pseudo-science explaining why trolls turn to stone, for example, or the business about whether the filmmakers are Christian are not - trolls can smell a Christian's blood, after all).

None of this would matter if the foundation weren't solid, I suppose, and Trollhunter undoubtedly succeeds as a movie about, basically, hunting trolls: the CGI monsters are absolutely phenomenal, as good as or better than anything you could see in a huge Hollywood production, and all the more convincing because they're used only when the need to be (which is almost a bit too sparingly; there's a slow 30 minutes in the middle when not enough troll action, and far too much troll exposition, pulls the movie down a little bit). The film is a perfect balancing act, in the end, a solid enough genre movie that it can support actual intelligence and characterisation, and well-enough characterised that it's more than just a solid genre movie. The few tweaks standing between this film and perfection can't be ignored, but it's also easy to make too much of them; by all means, this is a tight blend of the funny and the scary that is absolutely and unabashedly sincere about its peculiar, engaging concept.

7/10