Troll (1986) Retrospective

The Potter family move into a new apartment complex in San Francisco. While unpacking, their young daughter Wendy is attacked by a grotesque little creature, who had long ago been transformed from a powerful wizard into a troll. Using a magic crystal green ring, he captures Wendy and possesses her form. After meeting the other eccentric tenants, the family notices Wendy’s unusual behavior (roaring, biting, tossing people across rooms, punching people in the groin), but they attribute her behavior to the stress of the move. The only one that notices something is terribly wrong is Wendy’s brother, Harry Potter Jr.

Frightened by his sister’s sudden and violent changes, he seeks solace in the company of a mysterious old woman named Eunice St. Clair, who lives upstairs. When he tells her of the strange goings-on, she reveals to him her real profession: a witch. Harry asks Eunice to teach him magic, but she says that there isn’t time. She does instruct him as to the ways of a hidden magical world, and tells him of her long history stretching back to a time when she and a powerful wizard named Torok were in love. At that time the world was divided between fairies, which includes trolls, and humans. The realms were equal and independent of each other; however, Torok and some of the fairies challenged this balance resulting in a great war in which the humans prevailed. Torok was transformed into a troll as punishment. Eunice stands guard, as she has for centuries now in her apartment, waiting patiently for Torok to challenge the realms again, which is happening now. The troll wizard has already begun his secret war, going from apartment to apartment, attacking the tenants and transforming them into mythical creatures according to their personalities, such as goblins, nymphs, an elf and a bugbear, and it transforms their rooms into lush fairy worlds. When every apartment is transformed the world of the fairies will burst forth into the world of the humans.

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Harry is told by Eunice that Torok can be stopped by plunging a magic staff into the heart of Torok’s world. Eunice tells Harry the heart of the new fairy world will be a large and vicious magical creature. Armed with magic staffs which shoot bolts of energy, Eunice and Harry launch a final attempt to stop Torok’s hostile takeover of the world and enter the troll’s magical alternate universe. Eunice is attacked by Torok and turned into a tree stump, and Harry finds his sister trapped in a coffin of glass à la Snow White. Suddenly, Torok’s great bat monster attacks and disables Harry. When it goes after Wendy, Torok kills it, destroying his carefully constructed fairy realm. As the magic world collapses around them, Harry and his family are given a chance to escape, leaving just as the police arrive. Eunice is restored to normal as well as she bids Harry farewell and departs. As the police investigate the house, one of them is drawn into a remaining fragment of the alternate fairy world. Torok’s arm rises into view, preparing to use his ring on the cop.

TROLL began as a project Buechler conceived for Roger Corman when Buechler worked at New World Pictures on Android (1982). “Before Mausoleum, I really didn’t have much more than just an image of a troll and a little girl,” Buechler remembers. “I hadn’t decided whether it should be a fantasy or a horror film. About the time I did Android, producer Rupert Harvey was interested in new projects, so I put together a treatment of the concept as a straight horror film-a troll impersonating a little girl. I thought the idea of a monster who impersonates children would be extremely frightening. The little troll would respond very well to the love and kindness that a parent would offer, but don’t dare punish it.


Buechler dusted off the treatment when Empire topper Charles Band offered him the chance to direct after Buechler was brought in to save Ghoulies (1984. Band wanted to aim for a family oriented PG-13 rating, so Buechler had to rethink the hard-R slasher format of his original idea. Instead of having the Troll bump off the cast one-by-one in FRIDAY THE 13TH fashion, Buechler came up with the sweeter transformation idea.

“Basically, it’s still structured like a FRIDAY THE 13TH-type of picture,” said Buechler. “Instead of killing people, now the Troll does something magical and wonderful to them. The idea is that within each of us dwells multiple personalities. The Troll’s magic transforms those personalities into creatures. I gave the transformation a plant-like, organic look. People transform into enormous avacado-looking pods which burst. Inside are trees and roots and whole environments that flow out. It’s a weird concept, and it took a bit of pitching, but I got to do it.”

Originally, Buechler planned to write TROLL himself, but as he became involved with several other Empire projects, prepping the makeup effects on movies such as ZONE TROOPERS and THE ELIMINATORS while preparing to direct TROLL, he decided to bring in a writer, working with Ed Naha on the script.

Buechler had the script tailored for actor Phil Fondecaro, whom Buechler calls “perhaps the best performer I’ve ever worked with.” Fondecaro plays one of the leads who just happens to be a dwarf, and doubles as Turok the film’s Troll. Some of Buechler’s favorite sequences involve Fondecaro, when the dwarf talks about his dreams with the little girl, and another where he is transformed into a foot-tall magical creature.

Buechler began sculpting the Fondecaro puppet before the film was scripted. While most of the creatures in the film are cable or hand-operated puppets, the Troll is one of a few creatures that is played by an actor in costume, with mechanically articulated features. “Fondecaro is a wonderful mime and gives the Troll nuance and character,” said Buechler.

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Originally Buechler had wanted the Troll to be entirely animatronic. But Buechler anticipated doing TROLL almost a year before he got the go ahead. “I built the characters in about four weeks and they sat around for almost a year on the shelves, starting to crumble,” he said. “Suddenly, it was a go project and I had three weeks to prepare everything and patch it all up. At the time I had to get TERRORVISION started because that was the picture Empire was going to shoot immediately afterwards, and Empire’s THE ELIMINATORS was also filming in Spain. I had all three pictures to throw together in a hurry.”

Buechler’s prototype animatronic Troll appears in the picture briefly as one of the transformation creatures. Buechler says he discarded the idea of using a puppet Troll throughout because of the effects limitations. He wanted the Troll to be action-oriented, and had only five weeks to shoot all the principal photography. By having Fondecaro play the Troll Buechler was able to choreograph the Troll’s action like any other actor.

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The film contains a few ‘in’gags for followers of Empire’s product. The abode of a witch features a painting of Buechler as a warlock, with a ghoulie on his shoulder. When Noah Hathaway watches an old science fiction movie on the late, late show, the young leads in INVASION OF THE POD PEOPLE FROM MARS, are Empire producers Charles Band and Debra Dion. A doctor and his wife are played by TROLL producer Albert Band and his wife Jackie. Ratspit, a puppet Buechler created for a ten-minute sequence he directed for Empire’s THE DUNGEONMASTER, makes a return appearance as one of Sonny Bono’s fairy manifestations.

One of Buechler’s favorite pictures is THE SEVEN FACES OF DR. LAO, to which he likens TROLL. “That film featured a mystical stranger who comes into town and the people in the town are changed,” he said. “Their personalities get manifested in magical ways. TROLL has a similar heart, a similar core. It also has some fairly intense moments, when you’re not sure what’s going to happen.”

In addition to Fondecaro, Buechler wanted Noah Hathaway for the key role of Harry Potter Jr. after seeing him in The NeverEnding Story (1984). For the role of Hathaway’s father, Buechler wanted someone with Jack Nicholson’s smart ass quality combined with the mellowness of a Jimmy Stewart. Casting director Anthony Barnao suggested Michael Moriarty. Jenny Beck plays Hathaway’s sister, whom the Troll impersonates. Beck played one of Clint Eastwood’s daughters in TIGHTROPE. Gary Sandy, best known as Andy Travis in WKRP IN CINCINNATI, has a change of pace as a self-centered, dumb bodybuilder, while Sonny Bono plays a sleazy swinger who lives in the same apartment block that the Potter family moves into. June and Ann Lockhart take on the role of Eunice, a wise, refined, reserved witch-a grand old dame who becomes youthful and energetic when she’s ready to attack a problem and zip into action. The physical resemblance between the mother and daughter as well as their similar acting styles makes the transition believable.

“The Troll just wants to change things back to the way he thinks they ought to be,” said Buechler. “Once he was a magician who was transformed, and the Troll is the intelligent but mischievous part of his personality. He likes to pick on Harry Jr. (Hathaway) and scare the bejeebers out of him, but the Troll likes Harry. Trolls just want to have fun.”

To photograph the film in Italy, Buechler was lucky to get Romano Albani, who has photographed some of Dario Argento’s pictures. Buechler wanted the lighting to suggest the difference between the fairylands and the real world. In addition, the film has a rich and detailed production design for a low-budget film, courtesy of Giovanna Natlucci.

Filming on TROLL progressed smoothly. Coming from an effects background, Buechler said he knew the importance of preparation. Previously, his second-unit work often consisted of helping bail out other productions, experience which held him in good stead. Buechler was able to film about 37 set-ups a day. He even described directing TROLL as “almost a working vacation.” He also credited help from Charles and Albert Band in being active producers for making the shoot smoother.

One of the major transformations in the film is Sonny Bono’s. As Bono was only available for a couple of days, Buechler used a double for the makeup sequence. Three stages were built of Bono turning into a cocoon, using appliances sculpted to look like Bono which were applied to John Vulich. The transformation switches from Bono, tensing and flexing and developing color on his face, to Vulich.

Troll (1995)

Camera movements and cuts disguise the transition between stages. Bladders puff out and distort the face, which then collapses to a cocoon-like form, which turns gourd-like. A cut to a miniature heralds the opening of the gourd, which sprouts a fairy kingdom, done stop-motion by Jim Aupperle, with vines growing to encompass Bono’s apartment.
Vulich, who doubled for Bono, also served as the supervising makeup artist for TROLL.

In addition to directing, Buechler also supervised the makeup work for the film, supplied by his company, Mechanical and Makeup Imageries, Inc. Buechler sculpts with WED clay, a water-based clay developed by Walt Disney. From Buechler’s sculpture a mold is made using Ultracal 30, a very hard-setting gypsum cement that doesn’t powder and crack very easily. The mold is taken apart and cleaned out. A thin layer of clay is pressed into the mold in order to make another mold for the core of the puppet, which will contain the skeletal structure and mechanisms. Buechler casts the core in fiberglass and the outer skin in foam rubber.

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For articulation, cables and levers are hooked up to the puppets wherever a muscle might be. For lip snarls, a bar near the lip is inserted which can be pulled up or released. For the hands, elastic material is attached to both sides of the fingers so that they are constantly outstretched and erect with the elastic material acting as tendons. When a greater force is applied to the cable muscles that control the fingers, they curl and flex.

Buechler used to employ rubber based paint to color the puppets, but now uses Dick Smith’s innovation called pax paint, an acrylic paint with a prosthetic adhesive base, which is extremely flexible and long lasting. Hair for the puppets is glued on or punched in, depending on whether it is a foreground or background character.

One of the tricks Buechler often uses is the addition of K Y jelly to a puppet’s mouth to make it look like it is salivating. He also likes to accentuate the grotesque by employing harsh, contrast lighting. To help make such lighting more effective, Buechler tends to oversculpt his creations, giving them deeper wrinkles, and outward features that are contrasted with depressed features, contours that break up the light and stand out.


When Sonny Bono undergoes a strange metamorphosis in TROLL the makeup effects of director John Carl Buechler are climaxed by the stop-motion artistry of Jim Aupperle, requiring a remarkably detailed miniature set. Because Empire Pictures vacillated on the start date of TROLL, Aupperle was unable to do preproduction preparation before he left the production site in Italy to photograph rear projection process plates for the film’s stop-motion sequences. Since a miniature replica of the set of Sonny Bono’s apartment was required for the effects scenes, Aupperle measured the set carefully, including every piece of furniture, magazine, wineglass, or knickknack, and photographed the set so that it could be duplicated exactly for the smoothest possible transition from live-action to stop-motion footage.

Miniatures were built by James Belohovek, who worked with Aupperle on THE THING. Belohovek built all miniature components except glassware (wine goblets and bottle) which was handled by John Matthews, and a small statue of Buddha, which Mark Wallace built to match that on the original set.

Belohovek also assisted Aupperle in making the tree-like vines, which were based on store-bought plastic plants. Leaves were stripped off and attached to wire armatures and altered so that they could be made to grow. In the final shots, the vines from Bono’s cocoon are both moving and growing. The shots took from 9-14 hours each to do (a total of four shots lasting a mere two seconds each), but as the growth got extensive, some shots required the movement of 40-50 vines. To help him with the more active shots, Aupperle was assisted by Gail Anderson. Even so, a single frame took from 15-20 minutes to film. Once photographed, Aupperle ran photo tests on the footage to see that the color and the lighting matched.

“I went so far as to get some of the original negative from Italy that showed the actual set,” said Aupperle. “I’d use that as kind of a control batch. And I’d have my tests printed by Motion Opticals so they’d be on the same piece of film. I could compare the print from their negative to the print from our negative side by side to make sure that not only the details matched, but also colors and shadows.” Motion Opticals also added a small lap dissolve to the stop-motion scenes to give them a slight blur and cut down on strobing. The outfit also added the glow to the Troll’s ring and rotoscope-animated one of the magical transitions.

In addition to the Bono transformation, Aupperle also provided five shots of giant plant tentacles popping through the roof of Bono’s apartment building. To build the tentacles, Aupperle used the joints that were left over from the tail of the Snakeman he animated in Dreamscape (1984)

“I photographed the plates with a Mitchell that we register-tested in Italy,” said Aupperle. “In the foreground, we had people reacting as if they’re seeing something happening on the roof of the apartment. And when we brought it back here, I had process plates made from that negative. We used a contrast masking process that has been devised over the years by people like Bob Costa and Jim Danforth. It’s a process that lowers the contrast in process-projected plates so that composites have more of a first generation look; it improves the amount of detail you can get out of your plate.


Aupperle filmed the stop-motion composites using front projection, with split screens in various places so the vines could come out from behind the building. Aupperle animated bits of debris being pushed up and falling away. A few split screens ran down the front of the building so that vines could appear to come over the front.

“It was a subtle effect,” said Aupperle. “I wanted to be able to show them come over and not be confined to the sky area. I also did little things to try to sell the shot. Since the liveaction photography had been shot with a full silent aperture I was able to take advantage of the extra area on the top and bottom of my process plates and do a little tilt on the composite shot. As the vine comes out, the camera tilts up, like a cameraman would follow the action. It was something to take the edge off a process shot and make it look more like it had been shot on location rather than locked-off because you can’t violate the split screen.”


To help establish the Italian locations as taking place in San Francisco, a matte painting of the Golden Gate Bridge, painted by Stephen Burg, was added as an afterthought during filming in Italy. The shot has a somewhat fanciful look to it that Aupperle compares to Peter Ellenshaw’s work.

“TROLL had a much smaller budget than I usually work with,” said Aupperle. “We did the same number of shots on this as I did on DREAMSCAPE, and the budget was considerably smaller. In this case the producers had a very good idea of what they wanted going in, so we were able to give them a lot more for their money.

Despite Troll’s mixed reviews and far-from-blockbuster grosses, Buechler insists that for him at least, Troll succeeded on many levels. “I am very pleased from what I got out of it,” Buechler explains. “Troll worked in a number of ways. The whole picture was created within five weeks of principal photography with one week for special FX. That’s really nothing for a picture of that scale. The total cost was under a million. Considering all the things going against me in that situation–where time was of the essence-I am very pleased with the overall product.”

John Carl Buechler

Albert Band

Ed Naha

Noah Hathaway as Harry Potter Jr.
Michael Moriarty as Harry Potter Sr.
Shelley Hack as Anne Potter
Jenny Beck as Wendy Anne Potter
Sonny Bono as Peter Dickinson
Phil Fondacaro as Malcolm Malory and Torok the Troll
Anne Lockhart as Young Eunice St. Clair
Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Jeanette Cooper
Gary Sandy as Barry Tabor
June Lockhart as Eunice St. Clair

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3 thoughts on “Troll (1986) Retrospective

  1. While not a fan of the film, I did like JC Buechler. He came across as very cool guy who had some very amusing stories about his make up FX days. He died before his time.

    Liked by 1 person

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