A Wistful Exegesis Of The “Leprechaun” Film Series

Saint Patrick’s Day 2013 sneaked up on me, I must admit. I mean, it feels like we just had Saint Valentine’s Day, Saint Polycarp’s Day,  Saint Casimir’s Day, Saint Juan De Dios’ Day, Silvia Saint’s Day and Saint Scholastica’s Day, so by this point, I’ve sure lit a lot of candles, said a lot of prayers, spent a lot of days in quiet reflection, and consumed enough bumwine to give Cthulhu blood-streaked diarrhea. By the time St. Patrick’s Day rolled around, I was ready to eschew all the rosary beads and bench myself for this one.

And how does one traditionally refuse to celebrate a holiday? Why, by getting utterly plastered, of course.  Despite not really having any connection to my Irish roots, I do bear a Gaelic surname, though there are no actual Irish in my family within living memory, the Moriartys having long since emigrated to America. Nevertheless, the holiday is celebrated yearly by people even less Irish than me. 

Like this guy

Other than Nicholas, Patrick may be the most beloved of the beatified, and he’s a fan favorite among the venerated for a reason. The tale is a familiar one: The boy who would become Saint Patrick was born Maewyn Succat to wealthy Roman parents in Scotland (Read: not Irish). When he was a teenager, busy fretting about the strange hair he was growing, Maewyn was captured from his home by a Druidic raiding party and sold into slavery. As a slave in Ireland, he heard the voice of God and when he escaped at the age of twenty, he made his way to Britain where he was ordained. Ordered by an angel to return to Ireland, he set about converting the local pagans to Christianity. He famously did this by explaining the concept of the Holy Trinity using the shamrock as a visual aid, explaining that both God and shamrocks were a fundamental part of Lucky Charms cereal. As he also harbored an Indiana Jones-like ophidiophobia, Patrick called upon his Saint powers to drive all the snakes off of the Emerald Isle. The resulting explosion in the previously oppressed rat population had multiple consequences. As all of the historically astute among us know, the rats that weren’t busy spreading the Black Plague would go on to eat all of Ireland’s potatoes, a phenomena known as the Great Potato Famine. Faced with a sudden lack of food, the Irish people who didn’t outright die were forced to stave off starvation with the only source of calories available at the time: good old fashioned whiskey. As whiskey became their only food source, the Irish adopted a state of permanent snoggered-ness that has continued unabated for over sixteen hundred years. Too intoxicated to know better, many Irish fled to America, where they were forced to scrounge for their living as comically exaggerated and mildly offensive cartoon stereotypes.

All thanks to Saint Patrick; and so we honor him.

Is all of the above a true historical account, mere legend, or the booze-fueled ravings of a madman who has lately consumed six and three omers of the tawdriest imbibements available and does not deign to do research more demanding than the most cursory Googling? It matters not, I posit! What is important in our little tale is the moral: Maewyn “Saint Patrick” Succat is a great man and he must be honored, especially by those of us in whose veins flows the blood of the Irish pagans whose culture he destroyed. I may be an American who was born and raised here and has never so much as been to Ireland, and I may be exactly as Catholic as Tarvos Trigaranus, but I get to participate in this feast day, darn it all!  It is for this reason that I sat down this March 17th to view a marathon of the Leprechaun film series.

If you haven’t had the chance to familiarize yourself with this catalogue of motion picture gold because you were wasting all your ‘movie’ time watching things like Au Hasard Balthazar and Ikiru, you should get off your pretentious high horse, shake off that hangover, and shamble to the nearest Best Buy and make six purchases. There are six films, you see, in the Leprechaun canon: Leprechaun, Leprechaun 2, Leprechaun 3, Leprechaun 4: In Space, and of course the seminal classics, Leprechaun In The Hood and Leprechaun: Back 2 Tha Hood.

The first film in the series is now twenty years old, and remains a jewel in the ongoing, decades long flood of awful trashy shlock that Hollywood has farted out since its inception. To trace Leprechaun’s roots without getting too bogged down in film history, we should look to two distinct sources: the trend of cheap, crappy, themed slasher films ripping off Halloween (1978), and the trend of surreal, creepy kids movies typified by Labyrinth and The Neverending Story.

The two genres had been married before, to great success if I do say so myself, in films like The Monster Squad and Gremlins, both classics. But while these movies were rated for, and marketed towards children, despite being scarier than the majority of adult-oriented horror films, Leprechaun is a hard R due to the violence and language within.

Nevertheless, despite its murdery goodness, Leprechaun was indeed originally intended as a children’s movie, and you can still see it in the basic structure and characterizations. The comedic sidekicks ‘Ozzie’ and ‘David,’ (who could also be stock horror characters, except they don’t die) are straight out of a direct to video Disney effort. For that matter, so is the Leprechaun’s defeat by the power of ‘magical four leaf clovers’ discovered through ‘the power of belief’ as opposed to the more reasonable ‘butt-ton of bullets.’ The film also stars a much younger Jennifer Aniston, even before Friends, and watching her, you certainly wouldn’t expect that this woman would be a huge star a couple decades down the road. She’s awful. Also, she seems to have had a nose job in between Leprechaun and Friends.

The first Leprechaun film is essentially Terminator, except with a leprechaun. The plot, so far as it goes, is about a mean Leprechaun seeking a lost coin from his Pot O’Gold, and killing anyone who stands in his way as he does so. It has more faith to its source legends than similar trash like The Gingerdead Man and Twilight do, at least: the Leprechauns of classical folklore were mischievous and sometimes cruel, though I can’t find any stories that refer to them actually murdering anyone… until now, that is. Twiddle-dee-doo! The film generously uses green lighting (fitting, I suppose), dutch angles, and references to other horror films. For example: the references to F.W. Murnau’s expressionistic and iconic ‘shadow’ shot from Nosferatu, except with a leprechaun; and a direct parody of the phone scene from A Nightmare On Elm Street, except with a leprechaun. Oddly, none of the main characters are killed during the course of the film; the Lep’s victims are all random bystanders or peripheral characters.

Each film in the series stars Warwick Davis, one of the Holy Trinity of modern “Little Person” actors. Here’s how you may recognize him: he is smaller than Peter Dinklage and bigger than Verne Troyer. If the three of them formed one of those Russian Dolls, he would be the one in the middle.* warwick
Besides Willow, Warwick has popped up all over pop culture, securing roles ranging from the world’s smallest Brobdinagian to a tiny associate of Ray Charles’. He has been in many celebrated works, but was hidden behind a creature costume, so you may not have recognized him. When he was 11 years old, he played Wicket the Ewok in Return of the Jedi, earning fan derision but actually doing more in that film to destroy the Empire than Luke Skywalker himself. He’s been seen in Harry Potter, Narnia, Jack the Giant Slayer, and has starred in the Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant TV show Life’s Too Short. So Warwick has found mainstream success and is still the go-to guy when you need a tiny fantastical creature.

His greatest tiny fantastical creature role, in my opinion, remains the titular Leprechaun. You can see Mr. Davis’ acting evolve through the years; he’s about 20 in the first movie, and while very energetic hasn’t quite figured out how to radiate comedic menace yet. As the series continues, his Leprechaun becomes both crueler and more whimsical. In six films, the creature is never given a name other than ‘a leprechaun’ (and he doesn’t even get that title in part 4). The films have very little connection to each other story-wise, and it doesn’t even seem to be the same leprechaun from one film to the next, based on the fact that each one has a different age and weakness. So I guess Warwick is playing every member of a certain race of beings, which is either like having Orlando Bloom play every elf in Lord of the Rings, or like having Samuel L. Jackson play every black character in all fiction, anywhere, ever, depending on whether you want this analogy to seem nerdy or racist.

Each time he steps into the role, Warwick tears into it with cruel flair and wicked aplomb, and he’s the one and only reason these films are any fun. His Leprechaun is a cross between Freddy Krueger and Cesar Romero’s Joker. Rumors of a reboot of the series with WWE star Hornswoggle are hopefully nonsense: nothing against Mr. Swoggle but recasting the Lep would be an exercise in stupidity. You wouldn’t see anyone recasting Freddy, now would you?

Oh, wait.

At any rate, I could discuss the other qualities of these films, but ultimately it’s Davis that makes them watchable, so his contribution here cannot be overstated. The Leprechaun seems to take great pleasure in being a sadistic dick, taunting the poor folks whose lungs he’s brutally pogosticked upon with rhyming dialogue (just like in Shakespeare!). He wanders from fool to fool, dispatching them in childish, magical ways while seeking his lost gold. Eventually, the protagonists realize that four-leaf clovers are the lep’s kryptonite; I am therefore hoping that a future sequel features a clover-powered Metallo who is built to destroy leprechauns.

The second film in the series features a Leprechaun seeking his bride; it starts off in Ireland in the year 994, on the Lep’s 1,000th birthday. It is this day that he is allowed, under leprechaun law I guess, to claim his bride. His attempt to do this fails, and he is forced to wait another 1,000 years and seek his original bride’s descendant. Leprechaun dating must be very difficult; every time it doesn’t go well, you’re forced to wait a millennium, and by the time you re-enter the scene the girl you had a crush on has been dead for centuries and is probably married. It begs the question; what does the leprechaun do during that thousand years? If, as the series implies, there are multiple leprechauns, all of whom are immortal, careless with their gold, and willing to murder dozens of people to get it back, why is there anyone left in Ireland at all? This is also the second movie in a row where the Leprechaun constructs an evil go-cart, like Ash Williams once did but on an obviously smaller scale.

The third movie features a leprechaun terrorizing Las Vegas, also seeking his lost gold. The protagonist is played by John Gatins, who later became a screenwriter and was nominated for an Oscar  for Flight. In this film, Academy Award nominee John Gatins is bitten by the leprechaun, and slowly starts transforming into a leprechaun himself. This gives him access to fairy-telekinesis, makes him uglier and instills in him a love for terrible, dirty poetry. In this film, the leprechaun’s lost gold piece also grants wishes, and it is passed around a casino being stolen repeatedly, providing the Lep with a stream of victims that he murders in bizarre ways.  Also, his weakness this time is that the Pot O’Gold is apparently his Horcrux and destroying it will kill him. The strangest thing about Leprechaun 3 for me is the frequent shots of the Lep wandering around the Vegas Strip chasing the protagonists; why do there need to be so many shots of him doing this if he possesses the power of teleportation, as established previously?

The fourth film takes the Leprechaun to space. He visited space after Homer Simpson and Pinhead did, but before Jason Voorhees or Dracula. This one was apparently started as a separate, leprechaun-free story parodying Apollo 13, but the Leprechaun was added by the company executives later. I wish all unproduced scripts were eventually turned into Leprechaun films; up to and including Vladimir Nabokov’s The Love of a Dwarf, which would actually be an awesome legitimate film with Warwick Davis. But even better if Fred Dobson was an evil leprechaun; and instead of dying at the end, he killed everyone at the circus. What were we talking about? Oh, right: Leprechaun 4. This film is mostly a stream of poorly shot parodies, spoofing everything from Little Shop Of Horrors to Terminator 2 to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Leprechaun in this film isn’t really even the Leprechaun as we know him. He’s described as a magical, indestructible alien who seeks to marry a space-princess so he can become king… of space, I guess. This entry is spectacularly bad.

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The fifth film in the series would see a change in tone; for instead of heading to the wealthy city of Las Vegas, or joining the multi-billion dollar space program, the Leprechaun decides to display his empathy for the less fortunate by traveling to the impoverished “hood” and murdering rapper Ice-T. Yes: Ice-T is in this film; yes: he stores a baseball bat in his afro; and yes: it is exactly as amazing as it sounds. In this film, our hero discovers rap music and enjoys smoking marijuana as he hunts a magic flute, stolen by some two-bit rappers. It features a cameo by Coolio, so that he can deliver the “Jesus loves me, this I know, if he don’t I’ll find a ho,” line. The Lep summons ‘Zombie Fly Girls’ from the depths of the netherworld. Wikipedia sums up the ending of the film by saying, “The movie ends with the Leprechaun rapping about being an evil Irish Leprechaun.” And that’s true; he is a regular Slim O’Shady (note my exquisite calembour) and it’s wonderful. This film is a hoot, and possibly the high point of the series, although perhaps I’m just saying that because the fourth film was so bad.

Now, I should inform you that I’m writing this with my laptop as I sit in front of the television , viewing the films. I should also inform you that my heart sank when I remembered there was another movie after Leprechaun: In The Hood. As that film proved to be a success, the next sequel, Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood, brought tha titular Leprechaun back to tha titular hood. Heh, heh: titular. That’s really all I have to say on that one for now; as I write this it’s getting late and I haven’t got to it yet. Maybe I’ll watch it tomorrow.

Well, it’s late, I’m tired, and I will probably have evil leprechauns swimming in my dreams tonight because of all the hours I’ve been watching these damn movies. What was I thinking? I’ve rotted my brain. I should have just drank a fifth of Drano, it would have been healthier. Why didn’t I just review Harvey like a normal person? And there’s another one of these? I think I’m gonna cry.

No! Keep it together, Casey! You’re so close to the end. Well, dear reader, if you’re a fan of schlock, I’d say check these movies out (though don’t watch them back to back, it will destroy your soul). Warwick Davis is a delight, and there’s a few moments worth a belly laugh or two. Ultimately, this series stands out among the “random person/place/thing that kills people,” genre, edging out Jack Frost, Uncle Sam and Evil Bong. Get a couple of friends, get intoxicated if that’s your thing, and enjoy watching Wicket the Ewok slaughter greedy human beings. It’s what Saint Patrick would have wanted.

*This, of course, is not meant to take anything away from Jordan Prentice, of In Bruges fame, also known to audiences as the giant bag of weed in Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle and Howard the Duck. An honorable mention to him as well, and I assume he is hiding somewhere in that Russian doll.

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