Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Leprechaun. Following the murderous misadventures of a gold-loving shoe fetishist sprite, the franchise has six installments spanning from 1993 to 2003.
The 1990’s are a much maligned period for horror movies. For the most part, rightly so. But it wasn’t the 90’s fault. The 80’s were all about excess, and the two genres the Reagan era did best were action and horror, and both genres followed a similar arc, pushing their envelope and crescendoing into sheer madness around 1989, at which point they both pulled a hammy. Early 90’s horror is actually kind of interesting, in a archeological sense (it’s really the mid-to-late 90’s that truly suck). The genre was clearly struggling to figure out what to do with itself now that common Slashers had run their course. Many filmmakers turned towards magic, giving us films like Candyman, Warlock, and of course, Leprechaun.
The Installment: Leprechaun (1993)
Body Count: 4
The Story: The film’s prologue features a drunken Irish immigrant returning to his North Dakota home courtesy of a limo and blathering to his wife about how he captured a leprechaun while in Ireland and forced the little man to give up his gold. The husband then hides the gold, but the couple never gets a chance to spend it. The Leprechaun (Warwick Davis) has followed the husband across the sea and promptly murders the wife. The husband manages to trap the Leprechaun in a crate (using the power of a four-leaf clover), then suffers a stroke before being able to tell anyone.
Ten years later, in the “present,” a snotty Los Angeleno named Tory (Jennifer Aniston), is forced to spend the summer with her father, who has just purchased the run-down North Dakota farm where the Leprechaun still waits in the cellar. Long story short, the Leprechaun gets out and he wants his gold. Joining Tory to battle the lil’ monster is a three-man painting crew: the handsome Nathan (Ken Olandt), wiseacre kid, Alex (Robert Gorman), and rotund retarded man-child, Ozzie (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure‘s Mark Holton).
What Works: There are moments now and then when the planets align and a unique actor gets matched up with a role they were born to play. Arnold and Conan. Combs and Herbert West. Lugosi and Dracula. Bogart and Sam Spade. Downey Jr. and Tony Stark. And such is the case with Warwick Davis and the Leprechaun. There simply wasn’t another actor who could have played the role to the level that Davis did. Pragmatically speaking, there was not a large acting pool to chose from. And Davis is certainly one of the best “little person” actors movies have had, in any era. More importantly – and I’m trying to put this as tactful as possible – his body shape is very unique for a dwarf. Even those dwarfs who are not plagued by the typical limb malformations that slow body movement, are typically not very agile. But Davis is, with nice long legs (really accentuated by the Leprechaun’s outfit). Plus he is from England, so his fakery of an accent plays much more naturally to American ears. What’s kind of amazing is that Davis was only 22 when they shot the film.
From the film’s opening scene, which features the Leprechaun playing with his pot of gold and delivering the film’s thesis statement line – “Try as they will, and try as they might, who steals me gold won’t live through the night.” – Davis makes the character instantly iconic. And it’s a fun character too. His love of puns and fourth wall breaking one-liners made him a worthy heir to Freddy, while his love of rhymes gave him some unique flavor.
The score’s Leprechaun theme by Kevin Kiner and Robert J. Walsh is fun too.
What Doesn’t Work: Not much else. This is not a good film.
Leprechaun‘s problems are myriad. Just in the simple math area – it only has four kills. While that body count leaves something to be desired for a dumb movie like this, the bigger issue is that none of the main characters die; this is a “red shirts” movie. This gives the film a really low-stakes tone. Compounding this issue is that a large chunk of the film takes place during the day. Pulling off daytime horror isn’t impossible (Carpenter did it in Halloween), but generally speaking, unless you’re making an adventure-horror film like Tremors, anything that happens during the day just isn’t going to be effective. The scenes of the Leprechaun stalking around the farm while our characters chit-chat and try to paint the house feels like something out of a kids movie. Frankly I’m not entirely sure what tone writer/director Mark Jones was truly going for. The film is obviously supposed to be funny. But I assume it was also supposed to be scary on some level too. Though possibly not. It’s not actually funny, so either way it falls short.
Jennifer Aniston’s character is extremely grating too. It’s actually kind of weird seeing her do her normal Jennifer Aniston shtick here, pre-Friends. She may be physically cute, but the character of Tory is just obnoxious and given a lot of terrible banter. She’s also stuck in some profoundly hideous shorts for most of the film. These things:
Leprechaun is kind of interestingly sexist. Nothing out of the normal for the genre, but this was 1993. Tory is very whiny, for one thing. But she’s also really useless, relying on her handsome leading man to do all the real hero work. Only once Nathan is injured does Tory do much of anything – which consists mostly of acting like a nurse and applying first aid to the males. Most pathetic yet, when the Leprechaun is finally defeated in a two-part climatic moment… she is responsible for neither action! Two of the males are, respectively. Hero FAIL.
The film’s pacing is pretty lousy too. But it’s biggest problem is that its constant attempts at humor don’t allow it to be so-bad-its-good. The Leprechaun’s awful jokes are great groaners, but the constant wise-cracking from Tory and the young Alex get on your nerves fast.
Also – and this is an admittedly pointless gripe, but it is a pet peeve of mine – I’ll never understand why movies blatantly shot in Southern California ever bother to pretend they’re set elsewhere. Had none of the countless people required to usher this film to completion ever been to North Dakota? The film’s main story opens with a helicopter shot of mountains for christsake. North Dakota is the flattest damn state in the union. It’s also not very desert-like. What’s extra weird is that Tory says they’re in New Mexico, then her father corrects her. I could have bought that Saugus, California (where the film was shot) was New Mexico. You gave yourself a chance, then you blew it, Leprechaun location.
Best Kill: When the Leprechaun uses a pogo-stick to pogo-crush the ribcage of a pawnshop owner.
Groaniest Leprechaun One-Liner: “We’re cookin’ now kids!” said after he removes his hand from a stove-top range with a spatula.
How Leprechaun Is Defeated: first Alex uses his slingshot to shoot a four-leaf clover into the Leprechaun’s mouth, which causes him to melt and fall into a well. Then when the monster pops back up, Nathan (bravely working through a terrible leg injury; fuck you female protagonist) knocks him back down the well, pours in gasoline, then blows some shit up.
Should There Have Been A Sequel: This is a perfect example of a film buoyed by the power of its ideas and the charm of its central character (the Leprechaun). Because the film itself is an uneventful slog undeserving of love. Without Warwick Davis, I think this franchise would have gone the way of Mark Jones’ attempt to rip himself off, Rumpelstiltskin (1995). But audiences clearly ate Davis up, and the character is certainly worthy of re-visitation. So, ultimately, yes. There should have been a sequel.
Next: Leprechaun 2