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If you're walking into a horror movie entitled "Leprechaun" expecting something that's actually scary, you clearly haven't taken a spin around the cheapie-horror block before. And with this, the first of the Leprechaun films, it's more than just a lack of chills, or jumps- you almost have to wonder if the people behind it were trying to make a scary movie and just failed miserably, or whether they intended this to be a "so-bad-it's-funny" romp through the slasher-film standards. If comedy was what they were going for, though (and in this case, I think it actually was), then Leprechaun could most certainly be considered a success. A derivitive and uninspired film, Leprechaun is like a patchwork of stolen horror bits from better movies, recycling moments from the Evil Dead films, Child's Play, and a Nightmare on Elm Street, among others (particularly blatant is a scene with a tiny hand coming out of a phone receiver, a transparent knock-off of Freddy's phone-tongue from the first Nightmare film); it's loaded with bad acting, ridiculous lighting and composition, and a gossamer plot that really just serves as an excuse to get a bunch of people together in an isolated home to be picked off by our antagonist. The only thing that saves this hunk o' crap from being just another horror bomb is the shear enthusiasm of writer/director Mark Jones and, in particular, Warwick Davis as the titular emerald terror; Davis' cackling, leering energy transforms the cheeseball Irish fairy into a dark horse slasher icon (thought still, admittedly, a cheesy one) who, while not the equal of a Freddy or Jason, is at least as entertaining as Chucky, Pinhead, or the Candyman. The film's premise is so remarkably stock that you almost wonder if the script was actually composed in a game of Mad Libs. A group of disparate individuals- a spoiled Beverly Hills princess, her rustic father, a charming and good-humored painter, and his two assistants, an overweight man-child and a precocious 8-year-old boy- come to a secluded rural home in North Dakota to fix it up after it's been abandoned for ten years. While working in the basement, they accidentally free a leprechaun who'd been imprisoned by the previous owner of the house, and the killer dwarf has a mad-on for his stolen gold. The gold, as it turns out, was hidden by said previous owner and then discovered by the kid and the man-child, and until he gets the gold back, the leprechaun will cut a bloody swath through whoever stands between him and his coins (not to mention anyone else who just happens to show up). It's basically just a monster-in-the-house scenario in which the monster is a magical little person. And since leprechauns don't exactly have a lethal M.O., the film boasts some of the strangest attack scenes (I hesitate to say "death scenes" 'cause he only kills, like, three people on camera) I've ever seen, such as the tiny toy death racer attack (it actually knocks over a full-size truck, much to my horror), the wheelchair chase, and (sweet lord) the pogo stick kill. Yes, the Leprechaun kills a man by jumping on him with a pogo stick. This movie takes slasher films to a whole new low. The Leprechaun himself is played to a manic pace by Warwick Davis, the diminutive actor from Willow, Return of the Jedi, and the Harry Potter films. Davis' cackling, frantic keeps the movie going as he alternates between threatening people in rhyme, making cheesy jokes, and chasing people while snarling and panting like a rabid dog. The sense is that the filmmakers were going for a little green Freddy Krueger, but the Leprechaun goes way over the edge of campiness that Krueger always, at best, skirted; for instance, he's a shoe-maker by trade and has a thing for footwear, so at one point, the heroes distract the elfin menace by tossing shoes on the ground, which the Leprechaun compulsively shines. Truly a terrifying moment. His powers and the rules that govern them are laughably vague; he claims that he has no power without his gold, yet he teleports and seems to have super-strength even without the bag of coins. Still, Davis owns the part, and it's hard not to like the corny green goblin. The rest of the cast is composed of relative unknowns, except for Jennifer Aniston, who makes her big-screen debut here as Tory, the bratty valley girl (sans the accent) who would normally be first on the chopping block if she wasn't the main character (and if there weren't so few deaths in this film- only four! That's nearly bloodless for a '90s slasher). What can I say about her? She's cute, and she's the best actor in the bunch, which isn't saying much. Oh, and Mark Holton (who you might remember from Pee Wee's Big Adventure) plays the mentally under-developed Ozzie, a character who is so annoying that some of the funniest moments in the film come when Alex, the kid played by Robert Hy Gorman, smacks him around and tells him to shut up (Gorman also gets to say probably the best line in the film: "Fuck you, Lucky Charms!" In fact, I take it back- the kid's probably the best actor in the movie). And that covers all the memorable characters in the film, basically- the rest of the cast is stocked with driftwood. Again, I have to comment on writer/director Mark Jones' enthusiasm- he seems to really be pushing himself to make something atmospheric out of the film, even though he's not above getting silly with the material. The compositions are decent for a low-budget picture (excepting the odd, unnecessary dutch-tilt in mid-shot) and the cinematography, while clearly done on a shoestring (floodlights in the forest, eh? Green lighting on a clover patch, huh? Okay, I'll go with it) does at least try to make good use of shadow and contrast- at least, in the first half-hour or so (but first impressions are the best). A low buget is a fine excuse for less-than-stellar direction, I'll grant that much, but it's no excuse for bad writing; the film's screenplay is fatally flawed in that its characters are all ridiculously, unbelievably stupid- even more so than in most slasher films! They have access to a working car, but they DON'T use it to escape; one character has a cell phone, but forgets about it for half the movie; and O'Grady, the previous owner of the house who trapped the leprechaun with a four-leaf clover (the only thing that can kill or incapacitate a leprechaun), DOESN'T kill the leprechaun with the clover when he has the chance! He had that sucker dead to rights, and he KNEW the clover could kill the little bastard, but instead he tries to pull off a Bondian deathtrap- "I'll seal you in this crate and light it on fire!"- and has a stroke before he can even finish the job. Thanks, boyo. Now we have to watch a whole movie of the little guy. The music is pretty decent for a synth score, but there's a horrible country ballad they wrote for the film called "Four-Leaf Clover" that is simply sickening to listen to, so of course, they play it twice in the film; crass commercialism is bad enough, but attempted crass commercialism is where I draw the line. And I should mention that there are a few optical effects employed when the Leprechaun uses his powers, and surprisingly, they aren't all that bad (I have a soft spot for good old optical effects). Leprechaun isn't the cleverest, nor the scariest, nor the funniest, nor even the worst slasher horror film I've ever seen. It's a testament to mediocrity, the drive to capitalize on past successes with the least amount of effort- but it's also aware enough of itself that it can have some fun with just how ridiculous it is. It's a self-depricating horror film, which has to be some kind of a first. And while its modest success would encourage the producers to spawn a litter of increasingly inferior sequels (more than half of which would end up going direct-to-video), it can at least be credited with introducing a fun new slasher icon in Davis' Leprechaun, perhaps the least frightening horror figure in movie monster history, but certainly one of the most entertaining. Don't go into this movie expecting to be scared. It's not great cinema- it's "Leprechaun". Just go with it.
- itbegins2005, Sunday, June 20, 2010