We dig into the many films of the ‘Leprechaun’ series, examining what makes them work and what the next film should avoid in order to strike gold!
“No one takes a Leprechaun’s gold!”
Every St. Patrick’s Day it should be a mandatory tradition for all horror fans to indulge in the Leprechaun franchise in some way, even if it’s just for one film. Since 1993, these absurd horror films starring Warwick Davis as the titular Leprechaun somehow have spanned into a franchise that’s seen the release of seven films. While the quality of the Leprechaun films is certainly up for debate, there’s an absolute horror charm and personality to them that explains their longevity and why they’re still worth a watch. This series contains horror set pieces that you simply cannot find elsewhere, as this surreal series involves fantastical magic and a warped sense of humor to power its carnage in bizarre ways. These movies may not be good, but you won’t be able to take your eyes off of them. Accordingly, we thought we would dig into what makes this franchise work, piecing together the more successful decisions the series has made through its films, exploring the right ingredients necessary to make a “good” Leprechaun film.
What’s first important to recognize here is if a Leprechaun film should even be scary. The original film and Leprechaun 2 carry a very fable-like, urban legend sort of mystical quality to them. The second film even opens with a bizarre, flowery, “Ireland…Once upon a time” title card to kick things off. When this series began, it was a little hard to put your finger down on what sort of atmosphere it was trying to emulate. Tonally, the earlier films feel the most similar to A Nightmare on Elm Street almost, or maybe even more like Critters (to invite an obvious size comparison) with a tongue-in-cheek, magical vibe to it all. There’s a lot of pangs of Sam Raimi present, too in the camera work and practical effects. Honestly, the first film seems more like a Goonies type fantasy story involving Ozzie and Alex, than really focusing on the terror of this Leprechaun. In this case it’s not only until the final forty minutes that things really shift into horror mode. Certain moments that are supposed to evoke terror, like the Leprechaun chasing people in a tiny car or roller blades, just fall flat.
While horror might not be a dominant element of thee films, it should still certainly be present, and the best films from the series (see: Leprechaun 3) know how to play with the extremes of the franchise, nearly giving you whiplash in the process. The wisecracking Leprechaun is injecting humor into the horror right from the very first film (lest we forget the pogo stick death that he pulls off there), but it’s not until Leprechaun 3 that the scales seem to heavily shift towards a more humor-focused goal (with In the Hood and Back 2 Tha Hood nearly skewing the slant to more comedy than horror). It’s at this point that the films really just give into any passing whim they get, seeing the Leprechaun hang out with Elvis impersonators and letting his powers go off the rails entirely. Stuff in this film straight-up makes no sense, like the Leprechaun’s ability to make a woman come out of a man’s television screen, have sex with him, only to turn out to be a robot, electrocuting him. This is a series after all that has often ended with the Leprechaun exploding—not because it makes any sense, but just because it just looks fucking cool. That’s the mindset present here. Some might view these ridiculous decisions as being damaging to the franchise, but it’s because of the craziness that’s established here that things like the next installment being set in outer space, or subsequent ones making a meal out of “hood life” being possible in the first place.
This humor is also a necessary component of making a “good” Leprechaun movie because when you look at the latest product, Leprechaun: Origins that tries to bypass it entirely and focus on just being a horror film, it’s by far the worst and least effective of the bunch (but that might also have something to do with the fact that WWE Films is behind it). Turning something like Leprechaun into the next Descent where backpackers in Ireland become prey by a vicious monster isn’t what people want here. They want bad limericks and one-liners after someone has been bludgeoned to death by a shillelagh. Basically each of these films contain some sort of murder fueled by something that’d be borderline racist if “Leprechaun” were considered a race. Leprechaun 2 involves a a moment where beating the Leprechaun in a drinking contest is a heavy plot point. Leprechaun in the Hood sees a scene where rappers try to lace the Leprechaun’s weed with a four-leafed clover as a means of taking him down.
The mix that ends up working best here is to have the film’s horror banking off of its absurdity. Sure, humor might deflate the severity of what you’re watching, but there’s actually a turning point where things can be twisted so greatly that they turn back to being scaring. The “enlargement” death scene in Leprechaun 3 doesn’t make any sense at all, and at first glance looks really stupid. The more the scene plays out though, it manages to become increasingly disturbing. You can’t believe what you’re witnessing. In the series’ fourth entry, Leprechaun: In Space, a derivative take on Cronenberg’s The Fly sees Dr. Mittenhand (yeah, I know…) transforming into a terrible spider monster that’s also trying to kill the crew (in addition to the Leprechaun being giant-sized at this point…it’s a crazy movie). It’s completely unnecessary and heaping more on an already busy film, but you can’t help but love the hell out of what they’re going for. This is the same film where the Leprechaun gets onto the ship in the first place because a marine pisses on his corpse, and as a result ends up transferring into the marine’s urethra, only to later explode out of his erect penis once on the ship.
This isn’t a series about logic. It’s a series about visuals, and as long as you can deliver them, I think you’re doing good work with the series. There’s a scene in Leprechaun 2 where Cody sees a skeleton in the Leprechaun’s cave, remarks, “What a cliché!” only for the skeleton to then grab him with the Leprechaun bringing it to life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Leprechaun: In Space features a death scene where the Leprechaun throws a plate at a man’s head, and for some reason it has a horrifying muppet-esque effect on the man. All of this is to say nothing of the zombie fly girls from the Hood installments, too.
On the other end of the spectrum, Leprechaun 2’s murders actually hold a pretty vicious tone to them (the film as a whole is also really rape-y, and the zenith of the Leprechaun’s usual lecherous tendencies). One death involves a bully going to make out with the blades of a lawnmower, with the Leprechaun’s magic making him think it’s an attractive girl. In the second half of the film a man gets his face completely steamed off, until he dies. Even Morty’s distended belly full of gold death is more disturbing than it is silly. These are images that really stick with you. Here the Leprechaun’s one-liners don’t take away from the fear factor, they augment your disgust. It’d be like witnessing a brutal car crash and then someone swooping in with a joke.
Another crucial aspect of constructing a worthy Leprechaun film falls into the category of the rules that this certain iteration of the Leprechaun is governed by. It’s never made clear if this is the same Leprechaun across the films (which span thousands of years both before, and after, the initial film), but there’s a terribly different ruleset accompanying him in each of his appearances. At times four-leafed clovers are his Kryptonite, others it is wrought iron, and sometimes his defeat is brought on by the destruction of his pot of gold. Can he grant wishes, or is he all about a magical flute? The machinations behind the Leprechaun aren’t necessarily important (Leprechaun 2’s whole getting a bride by making her sneeze three times doesn’t make any sense), just that they’re there. Leprechaun in the Hood and Back 2 Tha Hood largely turn their back on the gold and bride mythology, and their absence leads to them feeling like weaker entries accordingly.
Ultimately the best way to service up this franchise is by managing to pay respect to all of these touches, incorporating the perverse “Monkey’s Paw” justice that suits this fodder so well. Even containing overly cliché characters and reductive tropes isn’t suicide for something like this (and let’s be honest, horror in general) as long as it has the necessary self-awareness. This is such an unusual, atypical horror series that actually thrives on its batshit insanity, rather than it being a detriment. There’s no limit to what can be done here, and it’s why in one scene in the first film the Leprechaun’s hand can get severed off in a door, crawl back to him, and reattach himself, and then in Leprechaun 3 getting bit by the Leprechaun causes you to turn into some sort of were-Leprechaun beast. It’s almost like with Friday the 13th all you need is a hockey mask and a machete. Here are your tools, have at it.
I truly don’t think we’ve hit the end of this franchise, and with new installments in the Child’s Play and Hellraiser series happening sooner than later, there’s absolutely no reason that someone shouldn’t be given another chance to let this series—and Warwick Davis—shine once again. In the right campy hands, Leprechaun 8 could truly be the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.
Hopefully it won’t be too long until we hear someone melodramatically shouting, “Fuck you, Lucky Charms,” once again.