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Friday, March 17, 2017

Filmland - Leprechaun Series

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Geek culture and St Patrick’s Day have never really been comfortable bedfellows.  I’m not sure why that is, holidays, in general, tend to fit the geek aesthetic shockingly well.  They’re all about strict color-coded palettes, they’ve got mascots and usually some degree of lore, but for whatever reason St. Patty’s has never found the home among the nerds that Christmas, Halloween, and others have secured.  

Maybe it’s the emphasis on raucous social interaction putting people off- I couldn’t say.  I will say that the one place where nerd culture and the ephemera of St. Patty’s- stereotypical Irish stuff, a handful of surface level Celtic folklore, four leaf clovers, and most importantly the holiday’s favorite mascot, combine is in the 1993 horror-comedy oddity Leprechaun. 

There was a time everybody had heard of this flick though I think its ubiquity has faded as the video store era has evaporated from memory.  However, there was an age when the Leprechaun franchise, a horror series based around the joke of having a little person dressed in a caricature of “Olde Irish” garb, was a powerful enough juggernaut to spawn five sequels and even a reboot, though we’ll get to that.  So, with St. Patty’s upon us once more let’s dive into that misbegotten era that was the ‘90s for a full look at the Leprechaun film series. 

To accurately understand the Leprechaun series you need to go back to a seriously bygone era.  I have no idea what the demographics for this blog are age-wise but if you missed the ‘90s most of it must seem like an age of oddness.  The '90s was the time when a lot of things that would become standard elements of modern culture were in their infancy like the superhero blockbuster, bad movie culture, and fan culture as realized through the blossoming Internet.  Leprechaun is tied into some of that, in particular, bad movie culture and where it found its roots. 

Each decade has brought with it a different technical innovation in the way that we consume film.  Where the ‘80s’ big jump forward was the invention of VHS and the ability to watch movies as much as you wanted at home, the ‘90s is when you saw the birth of video rental- whole chain stores like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video dedicated to renting people movies.  

The idea of paying a lesser price for a film you were maybe going to like once gave rise to a whole slew of novelty flicks, mainly gravitating towards horror comedy because that was the easiest genre to exploit cheaply.  This where you get things like Jack Frost, Uncle Sam, The Gingerdead Man, and Rumpelstiltskin. 

They were all conceived as a one joke premise you could sum up with a clever poster and a snappy title and their king was Leprechaun, which is odd because Leprechaun 1 isn’t really that good, in fact it’s kind of boring.  The plot is basically exactly what you think it would be- there’s a Leprechaun and terrorizes a small group of people, trying to kill them for their gold.  

The film was initially pitched as a children’s monster movie but the producers, aiming to cash-in on the rental scene I mentioned, pumped it up to an R-rating instead.  The film did eventually find a pretty dedicated audience, mainly based on people being shocked that it existed or was made at all even though it was purposely unbelievable in its conception.  It was basically the Sharknado of its time with 1 exception: Warwick Davis.  

Before Peter Dinklage, Warwick Davis was THE face of little people actors.  He broke into acting in Return of the Jedi, a role that made such an impression on George Lucas he concocted the fantasy epic Willow specifically to give Davis a starring role.  Leprechaun is easily his longest-running role and probably his most fun performance at that.  He’s hamming it up to the extreme but in a fun way that’s more about laughing with the audience.  He’s the only one in the movie in on its own joke, so all of his dopey Leprechaunisms ended up like he was making fun of the film right alongside the viewers on the couch. 

Speaking of film riffing, Leprechaun came out right in the middle of the Comedy Central years of Mystery Science Theater 3000, just when Mike was taking over and the show as enjoying its most popular period.  It was a golden age to be a fun-bad movie with an unbelievable premise and Leprechaun ended up the patron saint of college kids with nothing better to do on a Friday night than make fun of bad movies and get drunk.  It also helped that most of the Leprechaun imitators hadn’t yet crawled out of the woodwork and that Leprechaun’s human lead was Jennifer Anniston before she got famous. 

This success earned Leprechaun a sequel one year later in 1994 with a bigger budget and better pacing.  Where the first film was set in a little slice of backwoods, this one dropped the Leprechaun into Los Angeles for St. Patrick’s Day, basically the only time the holiday is featured in the series.  The plot revolves around the Leprechaun chasing some woman down to be his bride because of some nonsensical curse.  It’s basically just there for the obligatory “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” joke, though interestingly this predates Bride of Chucky by about four years. 

Actually, it’s probably no coincidence that Leprechaun slid into everyone’s hearts right as the previous little monsters franchises like Child’s Play, Ghoulies, and Critters were wrapping up.  Even though Leprechaun 2 doesn’t feature any returning characters aside the main one, people have tried to force a kind of continuity onto the series, citing this film as coming 5th in the movie’s internal chronology.  I have no idea how that would work, but it doesn’t really change the movie’s quality so, it’s not like it truly matters. 

Leprechaun 3, released in 1995, saw the franchise make a serious step up.  A lot of that is owed to getting a new director, the legendary Australian schlock master Brian Trenchard-Smith.  Trenchard-Smith has done a lot of work in his time and is one of the more creative low budget talents out there, and as such, he managed to actually inject a lot more fun and energy into the series than the first two installments.  

Movie three drops the Leprechaun into Las Vegas, which proves a perfect setting for all the luck based shenanigans they like to slot the character into.  What’s more, this movie introduces a wishing element to the story, which lets them do a lot of cool “be careful what you wish for stuff.”  There’s also a weird subplot about people getting bitten by the Leprechaun and turning into Leprechauns that never made much sense. 

Trenchard-Smith returned for the sequel in 1997- Leprechaun 4: In Space.  For context, this was one year after the Hellraiser franchise went to space with 1996’s Bloodlines, though still four years before Friday the 13th would head to outer space in 2001’s Jason X.  It was also the same year as Event Horizon, though by this point in schlock horror history the broad strokes of the space opera/horror genre had been pretty much established.  

As such, Leprechaun In Space is less of a parody and more of an extension of its prime joke.  Where the first films hinged on “wouldn’t it be funny if we made a slasher movie with a Leprechaun?” this one hinges on “wouldn’t it be funny if we made a horror sci-fi flick with a Leprechaun.”  There’s a team of space marines, a dank and dimly lit spaceship, a plethora of sci-fi ephemera like Cyborgs and Mutants; it’s basically what you’d expect based on the title.  This was pretty much the last Leprechaun flick to come out in the film’s heyday as the rental/bad movie scene peaked in ’97 with the triple threat of Leprechaun in Space, Jack Frost, and Wishmaster, followed by Bride of Chucky signaling its decline in 1998. 

However, despite the dominance of the rental era tapering off Leprechaun managed to pull out two more installments in the new millennium before the torture craze of Saw and Hostel kicked off.  First was 2000’s Leprechaun in the Hood, which dropped the Leprechaun in all black urban setting.  I have no idea how this idea entered the minds of the producers but it was a pretty clever one at that, and they even managed to wrangle Ice-T into a leading role opposite the Leprechaun.  

In a lot of ways Leprechaun in the Hood was a product of an already defunct age, trying to ride the dying trend of ‘90s urban horror like Tales from the Hood or Vampire in Brooklyn into the gangster rap and krunk age of the 2000s.  It’s debatable whether or not they succeed as they did feature the Leprechaun getting stoned and rhyming in a fashion that could charitably be described as rap.  However, the film’s diminished budget makes the “rap” sequence the only real stand out. 

Leprechaun: Back 2 Tha Hood is everything Leprechaun in the Hood could’ve been- and more.  It brings the franchise back to its roots…ish.  It’s still a transplanting of the entire concept to a black/urban environment; it’s just that this is the first entry in a while to remember part of the “joke” of these movies is no one but the Leprechaun realizing they’re being made as a joke.  As such what you have here is a by the numbers slasher plot being up-ended by the fact it’s taking place in a black neighborhood and with a ghoulish little person in Irish drag as its monster.  

It’s a fun enough entry and manages to be enjoyable throughout unlike the previous film, which was more funny for a handful of scenes better enjoyed on youtube than in a full film context.  Fun fact actually- this installment was originally going to be “Leprechaun Goes to Spring Break,” but that plan got scrapped for reasons that are lost to history. 

The series did eventually get the reboot treatment over ten years later in 2014 with Leprechaun: Origins.  Despite the subtitle implying this is some kind of prequel don’t be fooled, this is a straight reboot with almost nothing in common with the original other than the fact it too features a Leprechaun as the monster.  

However, given that this Leprechaun seems to be a monstrous, feral beast and looks like a latex alien creature, the fact this was pitched as a Leprechaun reboot at all feels thoroughly strange.  The actual premise, that this little creature monster is the real creature that Leprechauns were based on, could be an interesting concept but it’s not in this movie. 

The strangest part of this all has to be the casting and production force behind it.  See Leprechaun: Origins comes to us courtesy of the WWE after the company picked up the rights as a showcase for a little person wrestler named Hornswoggle.  The WWE has done this a few times like the produced the over praised Oculus film the same year and wrestler Kane has made a series of middling slasher flicks in the See No Evil series.  In the end, though, nothing about Leprechaun: Origins fits the WWE’s M.O.- Hornswoggle is unrecognizable as the monster, and the company barely promoted the film before burying it in the mid fall release dead zone. 

And so the story of the Leprechaun franchise squitters to a halt.  I’m not sure if we’ll ever see anything else from this particular film series, especially given what a hard time bigger franchises like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street have had finding relevance in a changing market place.  What’s more, what sold in 1993 is a far cry from what sells in 2017, especially in the realm of “I can’t believe they did that” bad movies.  Maybe there’s room for Leprechaun with the Sharknado/Cards Against Humanity college crowd, but that’d still be a hard sell regardless.  Some things just don’t come back- they aren’t made to last, and I’d wager Leprechaun, in all of its weird glory, is one of those things. 

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