Kill Me, I'm Irish
Growing up as a horror fan I held certain icons up as the true killers of the genre. Jason, Freddy, Michael, Chucky, Pinhead… Leprechaun? Strictly speaking, yes. The Warwick Davis-starring comedy-horror series started as something akin to the Gremlins and Critters movies, but as the series went on, the horror elements (and body count) crept up, the series drifted into slasher territory more and more. The point was the murder, not just the weird, demented jokes of the killer leprechaun. And then once Davis left the title role, the producers had to find their own way forward for the franchise.
Well, okay, it’s hard to say the franchise lost its way. Judging on the merits of this first film, their weird little goofy lark wasn’t exactly an assured success. Made by Trimark Pictures on a budget of $1 Mil with a cast of, at the time, C-list actors (yes, Jennifer Aniston is in this but she wouldn;t be Friends famous for another year after this film), and a dream, the movie was a success at the Box Office, bringing in $8 Mil in sales. That was mostly because it was a curiosity, a weird little film with a weird little monster at the center of its weird little story. The only reason it works at all is because Davis gives an absolutely go-for-broke performance, delighting in being the horror heavy in this otherwise stupid film. But who am I to judge? It did launch a franchise of eight films (and counting) so… someone enjoyed these, right?
This first film opens with Dan O'Grady (Shay Duffin) returning to his farmhouse in North Dakota after a trip to the home country of Ireland. He returns in a fancy suit, riding in a limo, flashing around a lot of cash, which his wife, Leah (Pamela Mant), scolds him from as they’re flat broke. He assures her, though, they’re rich because he caught a leprechaun back in Ireland and got the wee person’s gold. What he didn’t realize, though, was that the leprechaun (Davis) wasn’t going to let that slight stand. He tracks O’Grady back home, kills Leah, and almost kills Dan before the old Irishman is able to trap the wee devil in a crate with a four leaf clover on top, this leprechaun’s one weakness.
Some time later, with the farmhouse in disrepair and O’Grady in a nursing home, a new family buys the property. J.D. Redding (John Sanderford) brings his teenage daughter, Tori (Aniston), to the farmhouse and while she’s initially turned off she soon decides to stay… all because there’s a hot painter, Nathan Murphy (Ken Olandt), working on the house. He has his crew – friend Ozzie Jones (Mark Holton) and younger brother Alex Murphy (Robert Hy Gorman) – get to work and Tori ends up helping them. But when Ozzie sees the leprechaun it sets off a chain of events that leaves some people dead, others horribly injured, and the rest of the characters worried if they’re going to live or not. All over a bag of gold O’Grady stole and never returned.
Watching Leprechaun I realized this wasn’t a slasher in the traditional sense. While it’s held up on the same kinds of lists as the other classic slashers, this film is more about a tiny monster that kills. Energy wise, between its weird mix of comedy and horror, and the leprechaun’s repeated antics, it felt much more like I was watching a Gremlins film than anything I’d lump with the HalloweenThe franchise that both set the standard for Slasher horror and, at the same time, defied every convention it created, Halloween has seen multiple time lines and reboots in its history, but one thing has remained: Michael Myers, the Shape that stalks Haddonfield. or Nightmare on Elm StreetThe brain-child of director Wes Craven, A Nightmare on Elm Street was his answer to the glut of Slasher films that were populating the multiplex. His movie featured an immortal character, Freedy, with a powerset like none other, reshaping the expectations for Slasher movies to come. films. It doesn’t, in any way, feel like slasher (and not just because its body count is so much lower than even the most modest and controlled of slasher films).
Viewing it not as a slasher but as a little monster movie, though, I could kind of get into it. At least I could understand why it struck a chord with fans back in the mid-1990s. This film came out near the tail end of that genre’s big glut of films (after Gremlins 2: The New Batch and Troll 2) and for fans wanting something else that teased that same itch, this film would work. It had a nasty guy hurting and, sometimes, killing people all while carnage and mayhem went on around him. It doesn’t have the same chaotic glee as Gremlins, or the other the top mayhem of even Critters, but much of that is made up for by the performance from Warwick Davis.
Again, this film would not work were it not for Davis. The actor, who up to that point was known for playing Wicket in the Star WarsThe modern blockbuster: it's a concept so commonplace now we don't even think about the fact that before the end of the 1970s, this kind of movie -- huge spectacles, big action, massive budgets -- wasn't really made. That all changed, though, with Star Wars, a series of films that were big on spectacle (and even bigger on profits). A hero's journey set against a sci-fi backdrop, nothing like this series had ever really been done before, and then Hollywood was never the same. films and Willow in, well, Willow, threw himself into the role. It was clearly a delight for him to play a horror lead, getting to do something different while actually doing things his way. In fact, he had a direct hand in the creation of the character and the tone of the movie, inserting more humor into the role such that the film morphed from an outright horror movie into a comedy hybrid. It’s that energy that, of course, got fans interested and made the film the cult classic it is today, all because of Davis.
It’s also understandable why none of the other characters in this film returned. The one soon-to-be star, Aniston, got her real break in Friends and was suddenly too famous to return. She was also the only other actor in this film that gave a performance that was worth a damn… although that’s only by degrees. She was clearly still fairly green, with her biggest roles coming in the terrible Ferris Beuhler TV adaptation, regular parts on The Edge (both of which have been forgotten at this point), and a cameo in Mac & Me. This was her biggest role up to that point and while she’s decent in it that’s only because everyone else is so much worse.
The comedy is cheesy, yes, but there’s some fun to be had here. And, credit to the film, they didn’t lose the horror element completely. The leprechaun wants his gold back and will torture anyone in his way to getting his gold. He kills people that have his coins, that annoy him, that are just standing nearby… He doesn’t rack up a massive body count but a couple of the kills are gross and creative and that helps to keep the creeps and scares going. With Davis in the lead, working the character, the leprechaun remains a threat even as the film sometimes veers towards too silly or comedic. The film finds a decent balance and is able to thread the line well enough, all things considered.
I’m not arguing this is a good movie. It’s not. But for the genre it was playing in, and for the kind of scares and laughs it wanted to deliver, Leprechaun knew what it wanted to be. On that front it does work. It’s late night horror fare that worked at a movie theater with a lot of popcorn and soda, or on HBO or Cinemax at three in the morning when horror fans just wanted to be entertained. It’s not in the same league as the works of John Carpenter or Wes Craven but it also didn’t need to be. The film was designed to facilitate low-brow horror scares and comedy laughs. It does that and that’s why the fans enjoy it.
Now, as to whether the other films in the series could deliver on that promise is another matter. We have six total films starring Davis to get through and, after this film, I have hopes that he will at least continue to be a highlight for the whole series. But once we go to space, or to the hood (or even “back 2 to hood”) all bets are off on the quality of the series. And we have two more films that don’t even feature Davis at all. Sometime tells me we’re in for a rough ride right off a cliff at some point. We’ll see…