A new generation may have been introduced to the career Warwick Davis through the Ricky Gervais sitcom ‘Life’s Too Short’, but for older pop culture junkies he will forever be associated with the George Lucas fantasy cowpat Willow and a sequence of comedy horror films dating back to the 1990s, in which Davis plays the titular Leprechaun, a malevolent interpretation of the creature of Irish folklore. Six films were made between 1993 and 2003 and I’ve watched them all back to back in order to bring you the definitive guide to one of horror’s most bafflingly resilient franchises.
The first Leprechaun film is notable for two things. The first is that Warwick Davis really sucks at doing an Irish accent and the second is a debut feature film appearance from one Jennifer Aniston, who would later go on to be paid a million dollars a week for either pretending to have sex with David Schwimmer or pretending not to have sex with David Schwimmer. The film was made on a low budget and was apparently originally intended as a kids movie, which might explain why the tone is wildly uneven, lurching from inane pratfalls to grisly murder with gay abandon. The plot, such as it is, concerns a father and daughter coming to renovate an old house in the middle of nowhere which has a Leprechaun trapped in the basement thanks to a previous Irish owner who has stolen the little chap’s gold. Jennifer Aniston, her dad and three quite irritating house painters dressed in some of the 1990s most eye-watering shades are stalked by the Leprechaun who uses a mixture of magic and good old fashioned brutality to attack his prey. He also frequently talks in rhyming couplets, something that gets irritating quite fast. Jennifer Aniston lends some reasonable comic timing to the mix (it’s easy to see that she was going find a natural home in comedy) but the film is essentially a tired, if irreverent iteration of the classic horror plot of taking a bunch of people to an isolated location and then killing some of them in a variety of mildly entertaining ways. The Leprechaun mythology adds a little madcap fun to the affair, the make up is quite endearing and the creature’s fixation on cleaning shoes is quite an amusing weakness, but ultimately the first film in the franchise doesn’t really have much to recommend it above any of the other thousand or so tongue in cheek horror films spat out by minor studios. Warwick Davis may not be much good at the accent but he does turn in a commendably committed performance and its mostly down to his charisma that the film succeeds at all.
Leprechaun wasn’t exactly crying out for a sequel so it was a little surprising when this film appeared in cinemas the following year. The sequel relocates the action to the urban jungle of Hollywood and changes the Leprechaun’s motivation from the pursuit of his riches to the gaining of a bride, a distant relative of a woman who escaped him 1000 years ago. Surprisingly, I actually enjoyed Leprechaun 2 more than the original. The urban setting makes a refreshing change and the script manages to inject some proper black humour into things, as well as the best death sequence in the entire series (which involves an illusionary pair of breasts and a lawnmower). Warwick Davis continues the fine, if eccentric performance that made the original Leprechaun almost watchable, but in the sequel he’s upstaged by a glorious performance from jobbing American TV regular Sandy Baron. Baron plays a crooked, alcoholic shyster who runs a feeble Hollywood death tour operation along with his nephew. Baron’s exuberant performance adds a real seam of comedy to the film and helps make up for the stiffness of the obligatory young couple in the leading roles. There’s a lot of energy to the film, cutting between the Leprechaun’s murderous antics and the wife-to-be, trapped in his lair and trying everything she can to escape. Whilst Leprechaun 1 was almost instantly forgettable, there’s actually a kind of mad charm to the sequel, an energy that the franchise has been trying and largely failing to recapture ever since.
Continuing the tradition of re-writing the entire backstory of the Leprechaun with every film, Leprechaun 3 relocates the action to a seedy Las Vegas casino and throws a naive country boy and a parade of Sin City hucksters into the mix, all chasing the Leprechaun’s gold and the single wish that it can provide. A magical amulet is also added to the plot, and we also learn that being a Leprechaun is contagious as an untreated bite gradually morphs the leading man into a squeaking Irish caricature that manages, by dint some extravagant gurning, to be even more offensive than Warwick Davis’ own faux-Irish antics. The setting may have changed and the Leprechaun’s magical powers may be tweaked but this episode essentially retreads the themes of the second film with less viciousness and worse comedy. It still manages the Leprechaun staples of a few good death scenes and one oddly hypnotic piece of overacting, provided this time out by John DeMita, a talented voice actor who is appropriately pompous as a failing cabaret magician who comes to a sticky, if predictable end. I didn’t enjoy Leprechaun 3 as much as Leprechaun 2 which means that I’m the kind of human being for whom ranking the Leprechaun films in order of preference is an actual thing that I’ve done. I do like the fact that the theme of greed, the engine which drives most of the human protagonists in the Leprechaun franchise, is properly explored in a suitable setting. The casino makes for a natural home for a story of greedy, desperate losers and the film serves up a diverse cavalcade of broadly-drawn failures. Sadly there’s a total lack of any sympathetic characters, including the ones we’re supposed to be rooting for and thus the film never really comes properly alive. In any sane world this would have been the end of the franchise but in the real world we’re somehow only halfway through the sequence.
In space. Two words that signify a franchise that has clearly run out of ideas. Hellraiser, Friday the 13th, Critters and others have all sent their protagonists into space when the idea barrel was starting to look scraped dry with varying degrees of success. Hellraiser Bloodlines was quite good, Jason X was quite poor but sometimes funny, and the less said about Critters 4 the better. Leprechaun 4 sits somewhere at the bottom end of the quality spectrum: pretty bad but still just about manages to hold the attention. The plot is ludicrous, even by the standards of a franchise built around Warwick Davis in a silly hat talking in rhyming couplets. In the future a deranged scientist has sent a team of un-impressive looking space marines to capture a princess with advanced healing factors so he can use her to restore his crippled body, currently just a head and a single arm wired up to some flashing light boxes left over from Blake’s 7. The Leprechaun, who is co-incidentally trying to marry the princess, is killed in the crossfire but is able to possess one of the marines when he pisses on the creature’s corpse. Once back on board, the Leprechaun tears free of the marine he has possessed and embarks on his traditional avaricious killing spree. Various bizarre deaths build towards a frankly deranged climax involving a giant Leprechaun and a man who has evolved into a human / spider / scorpion hybrid. Leprechaun 4 is pure insanity from start to finish despite being straightjacketed by a tiny budget, a dreadful cast and the fact that the script writer must have been huffing glue on the day he wrote all the dialogue. The standout performance is the villainous Dr Mittenhand who is played by Guy Siner, best known to UK viewers for his outrageously camp performance as Lieutenant Gruber in ‘Allo ‘Allo, a gently smutty sitcom set in France during the Second World War. As the deformed Dr Mittenhand, Siner delivers the most insane performance of the entire franchise and that’s no small accolade. The rest of the cast shamble about as best they can but its Davis and Siner’s show all the way through. Leprechaun 4 is completely impossible to judge by any intelligent standard. It’s obviously absolute drivel but quite frequently it manages to be very entertaining absolute drivel. On the other hand, during the periods where the film takes a break from being off the chart nuts the script, acting and special effects are absolute guff. I quite like it, but then I quite like dressing up as an evil clown to have sex.
Leprechaun 5: In the Hood
Having broken through some kind of wall of insanity with the fourth installment of the franchise, Leprechaun heads back to a more formulaic approach with hideously-monikered fifth outing. Having been to space, the creative team decide that the rap scene might provide a decent backdrop to some tongue-in-cheek horror action. On the surface this sounds like it might work, as there’s always been an element of hardcore materialism in some parts of the hip hop scene, a worship of money and the lifestyle it affords. Filling the weirdly-chosen special guest star role this time is Ice T, bringing his relaxed drawl to the role of a pimp-turned-hip hop promoter who has stolen a magic flute belonging to the Leprechaun. The magic flute has given him the power to influence people and he has apparently decided that running a moderately-successful hip hop label represents the absolute apogee of human potential since that’s what he’s used his nefarious magical advantage to do for the last twenty years. Sadly, although Ice T has plenty of onscreen charisma, his interpretation of the part is far too sane to match the manic standards set by previous films and his performance sinks into the general mire of the film. The main protagonists are a group of aspiring rappers with a distinctly positive message who get caught up in the cycle of greed and immediate success the Leprechaun’s magic flute can bring. Warwick Davis shambles around giving his usual committed but rather odd performance whilst the ideas barrel, having been scraped utterly dry, is rendered down into a fine powder for the script writers to snort for inspiration. This is the only explanation for the inclusion of a group of glamorous ladies who are hypnotised by the Leprechaun into becoming his ‘Zombie Fly Girls’ which is exactly as cringeworthy as it sounds. With the gore budget growing ever-smaller and a tiny number of genuinely funny moments lost within a sea of blistering mediocrity, Leprechaun 5 really ought to have been the death knell of the franchise. It wasn’t of course. That honour would go to its ill-conceived sequel.
Leprechaun 6: Back 2 Tha Hood
As a realistic depiction of the lives of disenfranchised African Americans, Leprechaun 6 is somewhere close to D.W Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation’ with all the Ku Klux Klan worship expunged. In fact the only thing more racist than the depiction of African Americans this film promulgates is the fact that, 6 films into the franchise, Warwick Davis still hasn’t bothered to learn how to do an Irish accent properly. A group of teenagers find the Leprechaun’s gold, spend it on fun stuff and as usual they end up pursued by Warwick Davis and slaughtered one by one. There’s a bunch of forgettable supporting characters getting in the way but this is essentially every teen slasher ever filtered through a seventies blaxploitation lens, which makes the whole thing rather uncomfortable. Rather than the usual magical chicanery and illusion, the Leprechaun seems to prefer tearing people apart with his bare hands, but thanks to an ever more restrictive budget, most of this carnage happens slightly off-screen. What little imagination the series usually has is therefore absent, as the Leprechaun kills people in the most tediously ‘ironic’ fashion imaginable such as stabbing a dope smoking teen in the stomach with his own bong. The humour is painful, the special effects dire and the film lacks even the traditional Leprechaun redeeming features of ridiculously contrived deaths and a wildly over-the-top acting turn by one of the supporting actors. I had to google the plot to write this article and I only saw it a few days ago (although to be fair I was drinking like a madman by this stage in the marathon). Leprechaun 6 manages to be a low point for the series, Warwick Davis and the entire human race. Thankfully Leprechaun 6 has been the last installment of the series so far, although Lionsgate are apparently planning to reboot the franchise in partnership with WWE studios – so there’s always the possibility that the franchise can find some exciting new depths to chart. I await with baited breath and a large bottle of gin on standby.
If there’s one thing the Leprechaun films have taught me it’s that there’s no horror franchise so inane and badly-written that they won’t be able to get at least four movies out of it, even if it looked awful on paper before they’d even shot the first movie. I like to think that in a hundred years time the Leprechaun series will stand as one of the most baffling cultural artifacts of our era, a mad, sad testament to the reality that horror fans in the late modern period would watch absolutely anything. The first five films are currently available in a box set that people will sell you for very small amounts of money, so if this retrospective hasn’t put you off entirely, or you find the thought of a heavily made-up, pretend-Irish Warwick Davis strangely alluring, it’s all too easy to form your own opinion in the privacy of your own home. Just don’t watch Leprechaun: Back to Tha Hood. You’ll feel oddly soiled for days.
Onemetal.com would would like to state that, while every effort has been made to match the stills to the correct film in the series, we don’t actually care. Don’t bother pointing out any mistakes. Really. Don’t care.