The Series Project: Leprechaun (Part 1)
Watching so many films as part of The Series Project has caused me to recognize a few essential patterns. Most long-running film series (at least those not already based on an existing property like Star Trek or Harry Potter) start with a bold and interesting new genre exercise that can often be marked as at least a minor classic (Planet of the Apes, The Howling, Rocky,The Mummy). Then, when the second film is made, the stakes must be raised, and the action must be ramped up. Think of Batman Returns, wherein two villains were needed, and the look of the film was made all the darker and more surreal when compared to its 1989 forebear. Most Part 2’s are going to be larger and more ambitious than their respective Part 1’s. They'll include some kind of unrevealed backstory, perhaps reveal a new weakness of the main character or characters, and introduce new characters. In the case of slasher movies, they'll typically be bloodier as well.
But then, when Part 2 makes a lot of money, the producers begin trekking into the dubious world of the Part 3. In the third part, there are two approaches; either keep ramping up the action and introducing new characters, or take the series in a new direction altogether. The former is always risky, as it makes for such a glut of action and events, that it becomes chaotic. Think of Spider-Man 3. The latter is equally risky, as you run the risk of changing what made the first two films so impressive to begin with. Think of Superman III, which had a goofy new tone. Or Death Wish 3, which had a new location. Or X-Men: The Last Stand, which got all weird-ass dystopia on us.
Odd, then, that the Leprechaun series should kind of invert that. Yes, this is the first week of our journey through the Leprechaun series, my lovelies. Hang tight, 'cause we got a deep six-film sucking mire of weird-ass pseudo horror to get through. You remember these films. They are notorious. Leprechaun is the punch line to jokes. A bellwether by which other bad films are measured. A frequenter of “Bottom 10”lists. Even the films' star, Warwick Davis, openly dislikes the films. Is there quality to be found here? Well, now is the time to adjust your expectation knob. If you know you're going into weird-ass, low-budget horror movies about an Irish imp, then you should not be expecting The Shining.
Leprechaun is different from most franchises, as it started with the worst chapter. Seriously. The first film in the Leprechaun series is easily the worst. Which is not to say that any of the sequels are all that great. Indeed, by the time we get to the sixth part, and the evil titular leprechaun is smoking human bodies as if they were gigantic joints, you'll be questioning your very sanity. But yeah, we start low, and slowly wheedle our way northward. It's odd that a series should only improve in production value, and become higher and higher concept as the series goes along.
A rundown: The series follows a leprechaun – or perhaps several leprechauns, which I'll explore as we go – and his merry adventures trying to protect his beloved gold. This is a leprechaun with bad skin, sharp teeth, long claws, and a dirty mouth. He is monstrous. If someone takes his gold, he has a habit of biting them, hitting them, or killing them in some creative way. And that's pretty much it for the series. The other interpretations of the monster change wildly from film to film.
Let's swill down some green beer, eat some potatoes, throw on some U2, and keep our copies of Finnegans Wake at the ready, as we're going into the franchise that launched a thousand incredulous screams. To Leprechaun we go.
Leprechaun (dir. Mark Jones, 1993)
You may find that most home video copies of Leprechaun proudly state that the film stars Jennifer Aniston. That really is the only notable thing about Leprechaun, other than its baffling existence. Seriously. How did this thing come into being? If it were the product of Charles Band's imagination, I could perhaps understand, as Band is the man behind an entire slew of killer homunculus films, the most recognizable of which is the Puppet Master series. But no, this was, as far as I can tell, an earnest attempt at a new slasher franchise by Trimark studios. That it actually became one only confounds.
The story opens in 1983, and an Irish man named O'Grady (Shay Duffin), living in California, has stolen the titular leprechaun's gold. The leprechaun (Warwick Davis) is a mean little sot who caresses his gold in a disturbingly sexual fashion. The nameless leprechaun, by the way, doesn't ever spend any of the gold in any of the films. He just likes to stroke it and count all 100 coins in his cauldron. Anyway, he kills the Irish man's wife, but is forced into a wooden crate, and held prisoner with a four-leaf clover placed on top. Four-leaf clovers are a leprechaun's one weakness. Well, in this film. His weakness will change in each film.
Fast-forward to 1993, and teenage mallrat Tory (Aniston). Troy is an insufferable bitch who can't stand physical labor, and who owns a mobile phone. Mobile phones in 1993, I may have to remind you, were ultra-exclusive machines only owned by snobby yuppies and spoiled teenagers. Tory has agreed to help her dad (John Sanderford) refurbish the old O'Grady place, which has been abandoned for 10 years. Don't open the crate in the basement! Helping out is the well-coiffed hunk Nathan (Ken Olandt), a precocious 13-year-old named Alex (Robert Gorman) and a truly obnoxious obese man-child named Ozzie (Mark Holton from Pee-Wee's Big Adventure). I hate Ozzie. A lot. Ozzie is a magical retard who swallows coins and bumps into stuff. Is this guy of help in any way? He's like if you squeezed Lenny from Of Mice and Men through a Sunny Delight commercial.
Ozzie opens the leprechaun's crate and sets him free. The leprechaun attempts to work some magic on him, but he is no longer close to his gold. The gold was hidden years ago in a nearby pickup truck. Ozzie and Alex find it (thanks to a rainbow), and Ozzie accidentally swallows a coin. Meanwhile Tory and Nathan begin having a kind of flirtation. The best part of these scenes is Aniston's outfit; she wears a pair of high-waisted, acid-washed denim shorts covered with butterfly patches, and a pair of pink L.A. Gear sneakers. It gave me flashbacks to my Junior High days. There's a weird scene wherein the leprechaun hides under a truck and fondles her legs, and she thinks it's Nathan. Really? Nathan would really hide under there, and you'd really be fine with him stroking your calves? You're one spooky chick.
The leprechaun seems to have odd powers. He can teleport at some times, but not at others. He can cause machines to turn on and off. He can imitate people's voices. I take all this in stride. There are long scenes of just the leprechaun doing mayhem, and interacting with supporting characters. I have learned that many of the scenes from this film were added after the fact to beef it up to an “R” rating. Yeah, this was intended to be a PG-13 thriller. At the last minute, the producers decided to make it a gory horror film, and added a few ancillary kills. The leprechaun kills a pawnshop owner by bouncing a pogo stick into his chest. “This old man! He played one! He played pogo on his lung!” Oh don't worry. There will be more rhyming couplets in future films. The leprechaun also kills a cop. The leprechaun uses his magic to drive a toy car. He tells the cop he's 600 years old. Remember that number.
Anyway, our dim-witted heroes are soon beset with leprechaun violence, and they slowly come to realize they need to give the monster his gold back. Which, quite sensibly, they do. At first, Alex wanted to keep the gold to buy a brain operation for Ozzie, and cut the stupid out, but he realizes it doesn't work that way. Although, since one coin is still in Ozzie's stomach, the leprechaun continues to harass them. There is a scene where they distract the leprechaun by throwing shoes at him. It turns out that leprechauns are obsessed with shoes, and have to shine dirty ones whenever they can. Eventually, they find a four-leaf clover, and Alex uses a slingshot to fire it into the monster's mouth. He falls down a well, and is then set on fire. Nothing has been learned, and nothing has been lost. Y'know how in most horror films how the killer becomes all the more determined in the finale? Like when Freddy enters the real world, or when Chucky's head comes to life? Yeah, not so much here. The leprechaun is merely dispatched.
Y'know, of all the characters in the film, though, I liked the leprechaun the best. He's the only one who seems to be having any fun, and he's the only one with personality. He laughs and jokes (badly), and takes glee in violence. He's like The Joker in many respects. Only not nearly as threatening. Warwick Davis is a gleeful actor, but seeing him in that cute li'l top hat and shoes, ranting about gold… Well, it's just not scary.
The first Leprechaun was perceived as a notorious flop, and was a joke even before it came out. It got no positive reviews, and was already being collected by smart-alecky kids to show at ironic parties. See, kids? Irony was in fashion long before you thought it was a thing. The fact remains, though, that the $900,000 film made over $8 million, and a sequel got made a year later.
Let's take a look at Leprechaun 2. The next film will have the same actor and the same attitude, but is most certainly a different monster…
Leprechaun 2 (dir. Rodman Flender, 1994)
Rodman Flender is the auteur behind the original The Unborn, Idle Hands, and, weirdly, Conan O'Brien Can't Stop.
So the leprechaun in Leprechaun 2 is definitely a different monster. In the first film, the leprechaun said he was 600 years old. 600. Not 6000. In this film, the action begins in AD 994, and the leprechaun (still Davis), now wearing a kicky medieval outfit, is celebrating his 1000th birthday. Yeah. This one is way older. He looks and sounds the same, but his outfit is slightly different. In this film, he lives in a tree. His gold is no longer 100 coins, but a pot full of jewelry and gold trinkets. There is also no reference to the events of the first film at all. No common characters. No passing mentions in background news broadcasts. We're starting fresh. All this = Different monster.
Anyway, in a prologue, we see that the leprechaun can, every 1000 years, use his magic to claim a bride. All he has to do it make her sneeze three times. His selected bride (Shevonne Durkin) is rescued at the last moment by her father, who has been enslaved by the leprechaun. The monster puts a curse on him, kills, him, and vows to return in 1000 years. The leprechaun also says “Happy St. Patrick's Day,” even though some cursory internet research leads to the fact that St. Patrick's Day wasn't celebrated until the mid 17th century. Oops.
Fast forward to 1994, Hollywood, CA. The hero this time 'round is a blonde, soft-featured teenager named Cody (Charlie Heath). I don't care what anyone says, a hero is not allowed to be named Cody. It's not a hero name. Cody is the name of the posh kid who gets beaten by the bullies, and who is rescued by the cool kid. Hearing his girlfriend scream his name is laughable. It's hard to call for help when all you have is “Cody.” Cody is the co-owner of a Hollywood death tour (which are real tours you can book on Hollywood Blvd.), which he runs with his grizzled alcoholic grandfather Morty (Sandy Baron). Two of the customers in the film are played by Clint Howard and Kimmy Robertson. Cody's girlfriend is Bridget (also Durkin), who stares at him with nary a thought in her pretty blonde head.
I need to say here that this is a much more interesting setup than the first film. We have more interesting characters, a more interesting setting, and, oddly, better production values. This film cost a whopping $2 million and is, even adjusted for inflation, the most expensive in the series. This doesn't make it a stellar and good-looking film, but it's a sight better than the last.
Anyway, since it's his 2000th birthday today (St. Patrick's Day!), the leprechaun emerges from a tree with his pot of gold. At some point in the last 1000 years, the leprechaun's tree was moved from Ireland to outside of Houdini's house in Hollywood. And, I guess, the leprechaun was asleep in there the whole time. Maybe. It's not stated what he's been up for the last 1000 years. The leprechaun has an excellent sense of smell: he can smell his gold, and can smell Bridget. Bridget, unsurprisingly, is the descendant of the woman from the prologue, and is claimed by the leprechaun. She does the three-sneeze thing, and he is spirited off to the tree house. It's all very swift.
Oh yeah, there's a scene wherein the leprechaun makes a young man hallucinate that a pair of spinning lawnmower blades are a pair of bare breasts, and he forces his face into them. This scene provides us with two important things: Gratuitous gore, and gratuitous nudity. Things are looking up!
There's a scene where Morty out-drinks the leprechaun, and another where the leprechaun kills a fey coffeehouse waiter with cappuccino foam. For being a mythical wood sprite, this imp can navigate the modern world awfully well.
In this film it's established that leprechauns are weakened by wrought iron. I guess 'cause it's the opposite of gold? Anyway, Cody and Morty managed to make off with one of the leprechaun’s gold coins, causing him to attack them at a go-kart range. Morty traps the leprechaun in an iron safe, where he'll be kept, weakened for eternity. Morty, however, gets greedy, and remembers the “find a leprechaun's gold, and you get a wish” thing, and wishes for the gold itself. The gold grows from inside his stomach, and his midsection gets all stretched out and distended. It's a kind of gross scene. When Morty dies (and he would from such a thing), Cody goes after him. Cody learns, though, that so long as he is holding the gold in his hand, the leprechaun cannot harm him. This is a conceit that will also be dropped.
I prefer to think that this is not bad continuity, but a result of the multi-monster theory. Each leprechaun has different rules. And when they die, they stay dead.
There's then an extended climax inside the leprechaun's tree house where Cody and Bridget reunite and team up to fight the monster. The house is like a maze, and they have trouble getting around (when Bridget tried to escape earlier, the stones she used to mark her way vanished). They eventually drive an iron stake into his heart and he explodes. Someone actually shouts “He's gonna blow!” Snicker. It should also be noted that each one of these films features the infamous movie line “Let's get out of here” at least twice each.
I can't really say Leprechaun 2 a good film. It's a bit insufferable, and the hero is boring. I'm also still not used to the sight of such a goofy monster. A 3'5” dude in monster makeup and giant claws spouting threatening couplets isn't all that menacing.
The next will be the first straight-to-video film in the franchise, will feature a notable director, and will be all the more refreshing for how strange it is. Let's now head to Las Vegas for…
Leprechaun 3 (dir. Brian Trenchard-Smith, 1995)
Brian Trenchard-Smith is one of the more notable and prolific B-movie directors of all time. He was a pioneer in Australia's burgeoning exploitation circuit, having made films like BMX Bandits, Turkey Shoot (a.k.a. Escape 2000, a.k.a. Blood Camp Thatcher), the awesome Dead-End Drive-In, the even more awesome Stunt Rock, and Night of the Demons 2. I admire this guy immensely. It's probably thanks to him that Leprechaun 3 is the best in the series so far. He'll also go on to do the fourth Leprechaun film, which takes place in space. God bless this man.
So this film takes place in Las Vegas, and the leprechaun is now, inexplicably, made of stone. He is kept in his stone form by a medallion he wears around his neck. The statue is given to an Indian pawnshop owner by a mad one-armed, one-eyed vagrant. It's not explained how the leprechaun came to be a statue, or why the medallion works. I'm beginning to suspect that the numbers in the films' titles are ticking off monsters rather than sequels. This is not Leprechaun: The Movie, Part 3. This is Leprechaun the Third: The Movie. Anyway, the pawnshop owner (Marcelo Tubert) removes the medallion, and the leprechaun (still Davis) comes to life, eats his ear, eats his toe, and tries to kill him. The owner locks the leprechaun in his vault, and looks up information in leprechauns using a CD-ROM. Seriously. All the exposition on leprechauns is given by an animated CD-ROM program. That's actually kind of clever, as it gives us the monster's rules in a straightforward fashion. We don't need entire scenes to explain the rules to us.
The rules this time: Leprechauns love potatoes. They hate other leprechauns. They have a pot of 100 gold pieces. They can cast spells whenever they like. They are held at bay by that magical amulet. And, if you hold one of their coins, you will be granted one wish. If you destroy the leprechaun's gold, you destroy the leprechaun.
The hero this time is the 18-year-old Scott (John Gatins). He’s moving to L.A. from Middle America, but stopping in Vegas for the time being. The girl is the busty and sarcastic Tammy (Lee Armstrong) who works as a magician's assistant in a casino. The magician in question is the David Copperfield wannabe Fazio (John DeMita). Fazio is a horrible prat, whose only friend seems to be the hard smoking, sassy croupier Loretta (Caroline Williams). Fazio and Loretta work for the Mafia-tastic Mitch (Michael Callan), who is thick like a ham.
Scott is snuck into the casino by Tammy (in exchange for a ride to work; her car broke down), where he promptly gambles away his tuition money. When he goes to the pawnshop across the street to hock his grandfather's antique wristwatch, he finds a dead Indian, and a gold coin. He watches the CD-ROM, wishes for a hot streak, and finds himself magically transported back to the roulette wheel, where he suddenly has $100,000. Hot damn.
That coin will eventually make it into the hands of all the characters. Fazio will wish to be a better magician. Loretta will wish to be young and pretty again. And the mob boss will wish to bed Tammy.
All these wishes go terribly awry. Fazio gets chainsawed in half as part of a trick. Yeah, blood sprays everywhere. Loretta will be granted a bigger butt and better breasts, and the leprechaun will make her breasts, buttocks and lips expand to supersize proportions and then explode. It's a surreal scene. It's not as weird, though, as the scene where the leprechaun hides behind a TV set, and makes a topless women emerge to please Mitch. Right when things are getting hot and heavy with this mysterious topless TV woman (1994 Penthouse Pet of the Month Heidi Staley), the leprechaun breaks the spell, and it's revealed that the woman was really a clanking, expressionless android with exposed circuitry. Wow. Yeah, this scene make me cheer a little inside. Topless fantasy robot, yo.
Oh yeah, as the coin is passed around, so goes the leprechaun in pursuit. He confronts Scott at one point, and bites him on the arm. Scott pragmatically stabs the leprechaun in the head, and the creature's thick green blood seeps into the bite wound. Scott and Tammy soon learn that this has caused Scott to start a transformation into a leprechaun. He grows an Irish accent, and suddenly loves potatoes. Is it me, or this film getting weird? Eventually Tammy and Scott confront the leprechaun on Fazio's stage (post-chainsaw death), and torch his pot of gold with a flamethrower. The leprechaun dies in a fiery mass. Scott is saved. He gets to keep his $100,000, and he'll presumably take Tammy to L.A. with him.
One final detail: Yes, the leprechaun does speak in rhymed couplets. No, they are never clever. It's always along the line of “Give me my gold shilling, or there will be another killing.” He does recite a limerick or two, which are appropriately dirty… I have to admit, even though I've sat through three of these things, I'm still not used to such a weird-ass monster. A little man with bad skin and claws, wearing a green suit who can cast spells, reciting children's poetry, and who kills occasionally? Whose idea was this? Why did these get made? Why are there so many of them? What’s happening to my MIIIIIIIIND?!
Well, my sanity may be cracking, so that's probably why I'm going to admit a weird fondness for Leprechaun 3. The script is a little bit clever, the characters are a little bit off-kilter, and the film as a whole seems to embrace its weirdness. No doubt it was Trenchard-Smith who is responsible for any panache the film has.
Well, I guess that's where we'll leave it for now. Be sure to come back to The Series Project next week, when I cover the final three films in the franchise, including a trip to space with Brian Trenchard-Smith, and two truly surreal visits to tha 'hood. Hang tight kiddos. It'll only get more bonkers from here.