18 March 2012

YEAR OF BLOOD: THE KILLIN' OF THE GREEN

So, it's not EXACTLY a St. Patrick's Day movie; but it's also not exactly St. Patrick's Day any longer. My apologies, but surely it's close enough that we can still enjoy one of the gaudiest misuses of Irish culture since... actually, there a shitload of gaudy misuses of Irish culture. But this one is still really bad.

There are those who will refer to the fourth or fifth or sixth film in the Leprechaun horror franchise as "the one where they turned to comedy". This is inapt; the very first Leprechaun, released way the way back in 1993, had already managed that trick by the 15-minute mark. Not a funny comedy, mind you, but I suppose you were already able to guess that even if you don't know a thing about the film, based mostly on some combination of the words "horror", "comedy", "1993", and "leprechaun".

Let's go back in time a little bit. It is one of our pet theories around these parts that the period from 1989 to 1996 was unusually hard on the horror genre; a decade of slasher films had exhausted everything that could be done with that form, while the very ubiquity of the slashers had essentially killed off every other horror subgenre in North America. Until Scream came along and revived everything with post-modernism, there was nothing for it but desperation and flop sweat, running a number of different concepts through the meat grinder in the vain hope that one of them would turn into something even marginally effective. It was an era whose idea of creativity was to turn Jason Voorhees into a body-snatching demon; to make Michael Myers the pawn of ancient Druids; to saddle Leatherface with a comic reboot; to send Pinhead to the French Revolution and outer space. It was a glorious age of throwing shit against the wall and praying; and before any of these things happened, the world was treated to a queer mish mash of I don't know how many different ideas all jammed into one place, courtesy of TV cartoon writer Mark Jones making his directorial debut under the auspices of green producer Jeffrey B. Mallian.

I cannot guess at where this movie came from and I do not want to try, but the shape of it may have been something along the lines of: in 1991, New Line's A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise was apparently out to pasture for good - this was anyway the implication of the title Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare - and if you were kind of dumb, it might seem like this had opened of a slot in the horror movie firmament, as opposed to demonstrating that audiences had lost interest (But then again, who am I to say what's dumb? There have, after all, been six Leprechauns). Namely, U.S. horror cinema was now down one paranormal wisecracking prankster whose face looked like the losing side of a fight with a waffle iron. However the hell it moved on from there, Jones and Mallian got their prankster in the form of the Irish sprite, embodied by the altogether game Warwick Davis, taking whatever the fuck roles he could get, sort of like he has continued to do every single year since then.

Not that Irish folklore makes any mention of the traits of leprechauns we see in this film, from their tendency to violently murder anyone who touches their gold to their allergy to four-leaf clovers; it is, in this respect, a nice counterbalance to every other American depiction of leprechauns as goofy comic characters who hoard breakfast cereal like crack addicts. Though the filmmakers have still chosen to dress him in eyeball-searing greens and plastic gold buckles that couldn't scream "party store costume" any more if the price tags were still attached, while Davis, good Surrey boy that he is, speaks in an Irish brogue that is a) inconsistent and b) not even vaguely Irish. Seriously, if you can talk out loud right now, say this sentence:

"Troi as they will, troi as they might, who steals me gold won't live through the noight."

Congratulations, you sound more like an Irish native than Warwick Davis.

The leprechaun, who is never given a name, and thus I have elected to refer to him hereafter as Seamus O'Killigan, is in the States - well, duh, they had to set the film in the States, or Americans wouldn't watch it! - because a drunken Oirishman named Daniel O'Grady (Shay Duffin) stole his pot of gold on a trip when Dan was ostensibly retrieving his late mother's ashes; because the dirty Micks can't help but lust after gold instead of paying any attention to their late parents, you see. On account of all the whiskey they can thus buy, except they call it a drop of the craythur because they are Colorful Ethnics. Actually, I don't know if "drop of the craythur" is every spoken by Dan O'Grady in the film, and if it it's not, it is the sole moment of restraint exercised by the filmmakers in pursuing the hoariest stereotypes they can exhume.

The sequence in which Seamus stalks Dan and murders his wife by... scaring her so badly that she falls down the stairs... is the one and only part of the movie that is, generally speaking, playing things straight as a horror picture, and I say "generally speaking" because when you have 3'6" Warwick Davis perpetrating one of the foulest fake brogues in the annals of cinema while using magic to kill old ladies before he is driven to mortal terror by a clover, "played straight" has largely gone out the window already. But here, at least, Jones plays by the accepted rulebook: keeping the leprechaun in shadow, leaning heavily on sound to create a moody, or at least nominally moody atmosphere, killing people. Killing people is something of which there is only a little in Leprechaun, as it turns out.

Eventually, we hit the 11-minute mark, and the film skips ahead 10 years to find J.D. (John Sanderford) arriving in North Dakota with his spoiled L.A. bitch of a daughter, Tory (Jennifer Aniston - yes, that one, and I will have thoughts on the matter presently). What has driven these two from California (and the shocking resemblance "North Dakota" has to So Cal in this picture should comfort them at least slightly), and where Tory's mother is, are questions the movie does not think to address, and I admire it for this, a little; too much exposition has ruined better horror movies than Leprechaun. At the same time, given how awful Tory is in every way, it might have been nice to get some kind of indication as to why she has been dragged to the country and into our lives, rather than e.g. dropped on the side of the road back in Nevada to be mugged by hobos.

She calms her whining down at least slightly after getting a long, hard look at Nathan (Ken Olandt), the hunky painter J.D. hired to help restore the old O'Grady place where they'll be living; Nathan works alongside his tween brother Alex (Robert Gorman) and Alex's Faulknerian idiot man-child buddy Ozzie (Mark Holton), and here is where Leprechaun goes from being a strange but largely explicable movie ("Leprechauns are basically short, greedy wizards, right? What if one of them was EVIL?") to just right fucked-up in ways that can only be explained with a sigh and a shrug and a hopeful, "it was the '90s", as though Nathan's soft hair and Tory's hungover '80s clothing and her worship of "my portable", some kind of chunky proto-phone, hadn't already clued us into the fact that this whole thing, top to bottom, could only have been produced in 1992. 1991, if they were really forward-looking filmmakers.

There are at least three things vying for prominence in this movie, and the first two are at least coming from the same place. For starters, it's your basic monster movie set in some hick backwater with a pretty bitch city girl and a handsome local running around in a pick-up (a made-for-cable staple of some antiquity even in 1993), and then Jones tries for no obvious reason other than the identity crisis horror was having back then to cram it into the hole meant for a comic-ish slasher film, which means the creation of far too many people who exist solely to die, since the monster movie template means that none of the apparent Expendable Meat actually get to be; he even makes a bid at a Final Girl sequence that implodes with the softest "whumph". It's two flavors that don't readily fit together, but at least they're both horror, and at least they're both able to accommodate the injection of Seamus's japes and the generally flouncy, cartoon sense of it all (quick recap: Mark Jones was by trade a TV kid's show writer).

What doesn't fit in at all is the tonal shift - though "shift" is too gentle a word, "tonal earthquake" is a nearer fit - introduced by Alex and Ozzie, who are like nothing so much as the plucky, precocious hero of a DTV family flick and his goofy adult sidekick who is carefully dumbed-down enough that it's plausible that the kid protagonist can out-think him on a constant basis, wandering by accident into an R-rated (though not too R-Rated, and that's a sign it was '93 as well) supernatural horror picture. This is a misjudgment from which a film already rocking from an unconvincing clown of a villain and some really dreadful contrivances to sweep it along the second act (two separate "we need to get to the hospital!" crises, the filmmakers' attempt to make a besieged house where none exists) cannot begin to recover. Particularly since Alex is such an unusually grating example of the breed: the jokes surrounding his character that aren't variations on "haha, kids talking like grown-ups are funny!" are instead variations on "haha, kids swearing are funny!" And Ozzie is just a sad, pathetic variation on Lenny from Of Mice and Men, a comic type that had expired decades before this movie was made.

It is not, however, a really bad film; just a really tepid and tedious one. It's sort of unfathomable that it could have survived as a brand name as long as it did if not for two things: one is the curiosity of seeing Aniston in her movie debut (though she'd done a good deal of television already), one year before the sitcom Friends made an icon of her, and seeing that, in fact, she can be a really unconvincing actress when she has to be; the alienating way her character is written - one forgets how very shrill pre-Whedonite heroines could be - certainly doesn't give her much to work with, but the lazy way she always reverts to sneering and flirting to communicate everything makes for a largely blank protagonist.

Then there's Davis, who is not and has never been a truly great actor, though he is far, far better than the kind of roles to which his height has limited him, what with Peter Dinklage stealing pretty much every halfway-tolerable dwarf character for the last decade and half. Leprechaun came out five years after Willow, for God's sake, during which time Davis was cast in the BBC's Chronicles of Narnia adaptations, and the never-completed The Princess and the Dwarf. I wager he did not play the princess. Given that this was the sort of thing he was handed after headlining a George Lucas picture, he could be forgiven for just cashing in and whoring out his condition for the rest of his career - Verne Troyer Syndrome, if you will - but no, outside of that wretched, wretched accent, Davis really did put a lot of effort into the performance, diving into the physicality of the part while playing up the leprechaun's self-amused maliciousness enough to make him something of a credible threat in the face of everything else in the screenplay working against him. It's not very much; it's especially not very much to stretch across 10 years. But the fact that Davis never treats this disposable villain role with anything other than sincerity and respect is all that keeps the film even marginally grounded, and his obvious enthusiasm for the campiness of it makes his later declarations that the leprechaun was one of his all-time favorite parts altogether easy to believe, if not so easy to endorse.

Body Count: 4 if it is not 5. The film already plays it sneaky with Dan once, I am not prepared to say for certain that he ends up dead or not when all is said and done.

Reviews in this series
Leprechaun (Jones, 1993)
Leprechaun 2 (Flender, 1994)
Leprechaun 3 (Trenchard-Smith, 1995)
Leprechaun 4: In Space (Trenchard-Smith, 1997)
Leprechaun in the Hood (Spera, 2000)
Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood (Ayromlooi, 2003)

1 comment:

Derek said...

I just watched this whole series last October. I barely survived the experience. Good luck!