Released: 8 January 1993
Director: Mark Jones
Distributor: Trimark Pictures
Budget: $1 million
Stars: Warwick Davis, Jennifer Aniston, Ken Olandt, Mark Holton, Robert Hy Gorman, and Shay Duffin
After stealing one hundred gold coins from a mischievous and vicious leprechaun (Davis), Dan O’Grady (Duffin) manages to subdue to creature with a four-leaf clover. However, ten years later, a young family rent O’Grady’s property for the summer and accidentally release the leprechaun, who embarks on a murderous rampage to reclaim his gold.
Leprechaun was the brain child of writer/director Mark Jones, who decided that a low-budget horror film was his best bet to break away from television. Inspired by adverts for Lucky Charms cereal and the science-fiction creature feature Critters (Herek, 1986), he decided to make a leprechaun the antagonist for his feature. Leprechauns are diminutive supernatural figures from Irish folklore closely associated with shoes, rainbows, and pots of gold but also known for playing pranks and even menacing people. Although largely caricatured in popular culture, star Warwick Davis jumped at the chance to play against type even though it meant spending up to three hours in the make-up chair. Jones brought the proposal to Trimark, who agreed to finance the film, and infused more comedic moments into the script at Davis’s suggestion. Trimark engaged in an aggressive marketing campaign that saw the film making $8.6 million at the box office, although critical reception was largely negative; reviews slated the film’s attempts at humour and horror alike, though Davis’s performance was largely praised. The film was profitable enough to inspire five sequels, a reboot, and then a direct sequel in 2018 that ignored all the other films, none of which were particularly well regarded critically but which have gained something of a cult following over the years.
In the vast pantheon of horror movies and icons, it’s easy to dismiss or forget the leprechaun; like many horror villains, he quickly descended into parody and cartoonish violence and a string of low-budget, low-effort sequels saw this ridiculous concept run out of steam far faster than other more complex or alluring horror monsters. The core idea is ridiculous by its very nature and the film definitely doesn’t shy away from that, which I think is a positive, but I can’t say that I’ve ever been much of a fan of the film, the character, or this franchise as a whole. Granted, I’ve only seen about four of the eight films in the series, but none of them were as memorable or terrifying as the squat creature’s more influential peers. However, the 17th of March is St. Patrick’s Day and, since I make a habit of celebrating other holidays like Halloween and Christmas, it only seems fair to mark the occasion with a review of the first film in this often overlooked horror-comedy franchise. Unlike in the vast majority of horror films, the first character we even see onscreen is the villain of the piece, the titular leprechaun. Normally, there’s at least some kind of build up to the reveal of the killer or monster of a horror film but the monstrous little troll comes shambling onto the screen within the first minute of the movie. A squat, curious little fellow, the leprechaun is almost disarming in how absurd he seems; dressed in a bright green suit topped off with a fancy little hat, he seems like a figure of ridicule and his predisposition for talking in rhymes certainly ties into his ridiculousness. However, closer inspection reveals that he’s quite the disturbing little creature; with his deformed face, fangs, and claw-like hands, he’s more of a stout gremlin than a fanciful figure of folklore and he immediately asserts not only his avarice for his beloved pot of gold but his willingness to murder anyone who dares steal from him.
The bombastic and painfully stereotypically Irish Dan O’Grady believes his financial woes have been solved when, while visiting Ireland to take care of his mother’s funeral, he comes across the leprechaun and manages to not only capture the creature but get his hands on his gold. He promptly brings the cursed coins back to the United States, much to the chagrin and annoyance of his wife, Leah (Pamela Mant), who learns the hard way that O’Grady’s tall tales of a gold-hoarding leprechaun are all too true when the vicious little sprite stows away in O’Grady’s luggage, lures her in by mimicking a child’s voice, and scares her into taking a fatal fall down the cellar stairs. Although O’Grady’s able to get the better of the leprechaun and trap him in a crate thanks to a four-leaf clover, he suffers a near-fatal stroke before he can set the creature on fire, meaning the leprechaun’s curse carries over to the next people to come onto O’Grady’s property. This ends up being J. D. Redding (John Sanderford) and his bratty teenage daughter Tory (Aniston), who rent the O’Grady house for the summer, much to Tory’s displeasure; she’s far from happy at being out of Los Angeles and in the middle of nowhere, and even more unimpressed with the state of the farmhouse, which has been left to go to ruin over the last ten years. While J. D. is excited to be away from the hustle and bustle of city life, Tory bemoans the lack of shopping malls and just wants to get back to civilisation, and to a hotel, and away from the dilapidated house. Tory’s solution to any problem is to throw money at it; as such, she doesn’t even think to apologise when she accidentally bumps into Nathan Murphy (Olandt) and spills his paint thinner, instead offering cold hard cash for the inconvenience. A vegetarian and a pacifist, Tory sees herself as an independent and forceful woman of the nineties, but she easily takes Nathan’s bait when he insinuates that she’s afraid of the house like some flustered female and decides to stay after all and even ends up helping him out with the chores because of an obvious attraction to the young painter.
Nathan has been hired to do some much-needed renovations around the house; while he’s a strapping young chap, he obviously can’t do all the work by himself so he brings along his little brother, Alex (Gorman), and their simple-minded but kind-hearted friend Ozzie Jones (Holton). The childlike Ozzie is obsessed with tall tales; he spins a yarn about aliens and UFOs that is dismissed by Alex, meaning no one believes him when he tries to tell them that he unwittingly freed the leprechaun from his trap. Ozzie’s maybe not the most politically correct character ever put to film; he’s dim-witted and clumsy and Tory loses patience with him on more than one occasion, but he’s fully accepted by Alex, Nathan, and J. D. despite him basically having the demeanour of a child. In comparison, Alex is startlingly grown-up for his age; he’s somewhat cynical, dismissive of Ozzie’s fairy tales, and watches over Ozzie the way an older brother might look after a younger sibling. Alex isn’t above playing pranks on his simple friend, however, which directly leads to Ozzie being lured into the cellar and freeing the leprechaun after being duped by the creature mimicking a child’s cries for help. Alex goes to make sure Ozzie doesn’t hurt himself when he chases a rainbow in search of the leprechaun and quickly takes the leprechaun’s bag of gold coins for himself, chastising Ozzie when he swallows one and formulating a plan to hide the gold in the well near the house so they can later exchange it for real money in order to pay for an operation to “fix [Ozzie’s] brain” out of a sweet, but misguided, concern for his friend’s welfare. Although Ozzie’s obsession with the devious little troll grates on the others, J. D. is the first of the group to suffer from the leprechaun’s wrath as the sprite takes a bite out of his hand; while this isn’t a life-threatening injury, it’s enough to see the patriarch sitting the rest of the film out at the local hospital. This leaves the youngsters to fend off the leprechaun’s assault alone, especially after he cuts the phone line, wounds Nathan’s leg, and Ozzie places a frantic call to Sheriff Roy Cronin (William Newman) that’s naturally laughed off for its ludicrousness, forcing them to tackle the malicious little sprite by themselves.
Unlike later films in the franchise, Leprechaun actually tackles its subject matter and titular monster with a modicum of seriousness; if I had to make a comparison, it’s very similar to how Charles Lee Ray/Chucky (Brad Dourif) was portrayed in the first Child’s Play (Holland, 1988) as a brutal, spiteful, and dangerous killer despite his diminutive size and ridiculous appearance, and how that film leaned more into semi-psychological horror than comedic shenanigans like its successors. In the spirit of this, despite the whimsical score and fanciful appearance of the leprechaun, the creature is kept largely in shadow in his first appearances; we don’t even get a good look at his face until about twenty minutes into the film and he’s portrayed as being a twisted little troll, mimicking the voices of his victims and toying with his prey with his childish rhymes and quips while cruelly taunting them. However, the film is unashamedly a horror-comedy rather than a straightforward horror movie and it tentatively walks the line between both genres in a way its sequels didn’t; it’s not as ludicrous as the two Hood films (Spera 2000; Ayromlooi, 2003) or a generic monster film like Leprechaun: Origins (Lipovsky, 2014) as it features scenes with the leprechaun gleefully chasing after his victims on a child’s tricycle and pounding a pawn shop owner (John Voldstad) to death with a pogo stick! Moreover, the leprechaun is functionally immortal (claiming to be six-hundred years old) and invulnerable; although bullets and blunt objects can hurt and slow him, he’ll “keep coming back” until he’s retrieved his gold.
While the leprechaun’s outfit is a bit much (it’s like something out of a pantomime or a costume shop and could’ve done with looking a bit more worn and faded in some places), Warwick Davis is completely unrecognisable beneath the creature’s malformed visage; sporting a permanent leering smile and a mouthful of rotten fangs, the leprechaun is a disgusting little troll who showcases an array of magical powers. Initially weakened from ten years of the four-leaf clover’s influence and barely able to cause a door to shut with his magic, the leprechaun rekindles his strength naturally over time but the film also implies that terrorising and killing others restores his power as much as being in possession of his magical gold. To that end, he delivers some of the most bizarre kills in horror cinema; because of his short stature, it’s easy to dismiss the leprechaun’s threat but he sports razor sharp nails, has a tendency to bite chunks out of people, and exhibits a strength beyond his size that borders on the superhuman. As mentioned, he crushes a man to death with a pogo stick; he claws at Deputy Tripet’s (David Permenter) face and then uses his teleportation powers to toy with him before snapping his neck with his bare hands; he also threatens to cut Nathan’s foot off with a rusty hatchet after injuring him with a bear trap and even exhibis control over his severed hand after it’s cut off by a door. The leprechaun’s only real weaknesses is his obsessive compulsion to stop and shine shoes when he spots them and the magical powers of a four-leaf clover, which is enough to keep him trapped in a crate for ten years and ultimately cause him to melt into a skeleton (and even then he just keeps coming). While some horror monsters and slasher villains have reasonably vague motivations, the leprechaun is fixated on finding his crock of gold; while he delights in tormenting and killing others, that’s really more for fun and in pursuit of his goal and there’s definitely a suggestion that he’d be placated if his gold were simply returned to him.
Indeed, this turns out to be the case when Ozzie and Alex let slip about the gold they hid in the well; Tory manages to retrieve it and return it to the leprechaun, but he pursues them with a vengeance when he finds one coin missing (since Ozzie swallowed it earlier) and assumes he’d been tricked. While trying to get some help at the hospital, Tory takes a detour to a nursing home to consult with O’Grady, only to find that the leprechaun has attacked him, taken his place, and to be chased by him in a wheelchair. O’Grady manages to cling to life long enough to reveal that the leprechaun can be subdued with a four-leaf clover and, despite the leprechaun hounding her at every turn and even ripping out and eating Tripet’s eye, and the insurmountable odds of finding the rare flower, Tory’s able to pick out from a patch of clovers. When the leprechaun tries to shove Alex’s head into a bear trap, Ozzie bravely endures the creature’s wrath after revealed that he’s got the missing coin in his stomach; Alex is then able to deliver a decent quip (“Fuck you, Lucky Charms!”) before firing the clover into the leprechaun’s mouth when he’s slashing at Ozzie’s face. This causes the leprechaun to melt from the inside out, reducing him to a putrid, melting, skeletal visage that stubbornly continues to go for them until Nathan finishes him off in disappointingly unspectacular fashion by simply pushing him down a well and blowing him up. While the film ends with the leprechaun’s disembodied voice vowing to curse the well and rebuild his magic to recover his gold (and certainly he would return on more than one occasion in future sequels), I can’t help but feel his end would’ve been more impactful if it’d been more like Child’s Play and Gremlins (Dante, 1984) and focused more on the leprechaun’s flesh dissolving and his charred skeleton crawling after his victims before he went up in a burst of flames but the more important thing about the ending, whatever it’s form, is that it meant this weird little film was finally over.
As I’ve heavily alluded to, I’m not really a big fan of Leprechaun or its sequels; they’re not really scary and just a bit too ridiculous for me in concept and execution, so it’s perhaps no surprise that I don’t rate this first film very highly. I’ve watched a lot of horror films and am very familiar with the horror icons of the nineties, but the leprechaun has to be one of the weakest of the bunch, seconded only by Chucky. For me, it’s simply because they’re too short and too ineffectual to really be all that much of a threat, however they manage to hold their own through their cackling demeanours and creativity. Certainly, Warwick Davis shines in the title role and throughout the film; every time he’s onscreen, whether shrouded in shadow or galivanting around in his little go-kart, he seems to be having the time of his life and absolutely devours the scenery whenever he’s shuffling about and taunting his prey. While we don’t really get to see the extent of his powers, he’s certainly a persistent and imaginative little monster, though this first film doesn’t really do justice to his particularly cruel brand of brutality. The other actors do a decent enough job; Alex and Ozzie are the standouts of the group, surprisingly considering children usually aren’t that impressive in films and the potentially insensitive nature of Ozzie’s character. Thankfully, Leprechaun doesn’t take itself too seriously; it’s more of a grim, whimsical modern fairy tale than a dark, gory slasher, and while that works for the film I just feel like the entire execution and concept is lacking somewhat. You’re not really missing all that much if you’ve never seen Leprechaun and I can’t really recommend it or the franchise beyond sheer morbid curiosity, but I guess there are worse ways to spend St. Patrick’s Day.
Could Be Better
Are you a fan of Leprechaun? What did you think to the character and concept? Were you impressed with Jennifer Aniston and Robert Hy Gorman and do you think Ozzie’s characterisation has aged poorly? Which kill was your favourite and what did you think to the leprechaun’s make-up effects? Which film in the franchise was your favourite and would you like to see a more serious take on the concept? How are you celebrating St. Patrick’s Day today? Whatever you think about Leprechaun, feel free to leave a comment below or on my social media.