23 March 2012

YEAR OF BLOOD: A LOSING STREAK

With Leprechaun 3 in 1995, the franchise made its perhaps inevitable leap to the muggy swamps of direct-to-video horror, from whence it never returned. "And who would be able to tell?" I thought during every cheap-ass moment of Leprechaun and Leprechaun 2, assuming that the chintzy props and bargain basement supporting casts and tacky lighting that attempted to make up for the films' inordinate lack of atmosphere with an industrial dose of lurid party gels couldn't really be any worse, and that the most striking difference between this third feature and its forebears would be a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Those were simpler, happier, more innocent days! For now I am on the flipside of Leprechaun 3, and have been reminded in a straightforward and even brutal fashion that as bad as a theatrically released mid-'90s horror movie can be, no explorer has yet reached the depths attainable by DTV horror.

It doesn't take all that long to get to that point, either. In fact, the last moment during which one can hold out much hope for the film is during its opening credits, when composer Dennis Michael Tenney unleashes the first overtly Irish-flavored music to be found in the Leprechaun series. That it is tinny electronic whinnying that sounds less like a movie score than the opening title loop for a 1993 SNES game titled Super Leprechaun Adventures or something like that, I think the open-minded viewer should be able to overlook.

Anyway, the next thing that happens is a bunch of aerial shots of Las Vegas, Nevada. And the quick-witted will immediately recall that when we last saw our wisecracking magical friend, he had just blown up in Los Angeles, California; but I guess one can come up with a plausible reason for his remains to end up just one state over. It's not as desperate as the jump from North Dakota to California between the first and second, and it's also something that I need to stop caring about if I have even the slightest intention of making it through the rest of this series with my sanity intact. More to the point, we know already, if we did not before, that this third chapter is doomed to be all about the leprechaun's adventures in Sin City, making this another first for the franchise, and even more unpleasant than when it crossed the DTV Rubicon: it is the first of four consecutive "destination" Leprechaun films, where the intent is that the mere fact of sticking the angry little creature in a new setting will have some kind of entrancing effect on the audience; in the future, this would end up taking him to places that make Las Vegas look positively artistic, but from the vantage point of 1995, it's an unabashed desperation move, and that's even before it becomes really, screamingly obvious how much screenwriter David DuBos and director Brian Trenchard-Smith were going to fumble the Vegas setting anyway (Trenchard-Smith is, incidentally, a sort of anti-hero of mine, for his work helming the unfathomable Megiddo: The Omega Code 2, and for popping up unexpectedly in my life a number of times since then).

Continuity not being a franchise strong point, it should not bother me - but it does, of course - that the leprechaun (played, as always, by the indispensible Warwick Davis) first shows up as a stone statue wearing a cheap-looking medallion, being sold by a dismal look old man to a pawnbroker. Gupta (Marcelo Tubert), with the admonition to never, ever pull the medallion off, in an unmistakeable and presumably accidental echo of the famous "Zuni fetish doll" sequence of Trilogy of Terror. The pawnbroker doesn't, and the movie ends, after one tepid and painfully amateurish, but agreeable short scene.

Nah, the pawnbroker grouses about how he'll never be able to sell anything so obviously fake, and removes the medallion. Moments later, the leprechaun comes to life and bites off Gupta's finger, making jokes about loving Indian food - because that's what a centuries-old Irish fay would do, of course - and we learn that the medallion can ward him off as effectively as four-leaf clovers back in the first movie. This being set up, we jump to another scene to meet our hero, Scott (John Gatins, who would one day grow up to write Real Steel), a rather boggle-eyed, gangly thing that we're meant to find sympathetic for some reason. He's stopping of in Las Vegas just for the night, before arriving in California for college; naturally enough, the first thing he does is cross paths with a pretty but no-nonsense girl named Tammy (Lee Armstrong), who works as a magician's assistant in one of the shittiest casinos imaginable. He all but begs her to sneak him in, just so he can see what the inside of one of these dens of sin looks like, and though she objects, his goblinesque charms eventually win her over, and within about fifteen seconds, he has ignored her injunction to not gamble a single penny, cashed in his mother's check for $23,000 for college expenses (for that is, naturally, the approximate amount of spending money a college freshman needs), and lost all of it to a fixed roulette wheel run by Tammy's shady "friend" Loretta (Caroline Williams). While this happens, Gupta has managed to find a CD-ROM of Irish folklore in a stalk of pawned software (CD-ROMs! Holy shit, the 1990s! And it looks and sounds like one, too! God, I miss when computers were strange magic boxes that nobody quite new what to do with), and is using its hugely plot-specific information about leprechauns to stay alive.

So far we have: pawnbroker being chased around a single set by Warwick Davis; and a milky hero losing all his money in an unconvincing casino set (the exterior is effected by hanging an obvious tarp reading "Lucky Shamrock" - because how else would we remember that it's a Leprechaun movie? - over the real sign of the real casino that let them film exteriors for one shot). Does that sound exciting? I hope so, because for 29 solid minutes, that is all the plot Leprechaun 3 desires to advance - almost one-third of its total running time. I apologise to the word "plot" for the awful thing I just did to it there.

Finally, the leprechaun kills Gupta, and Scott heads to the pawnshop to raise some cash off his watch, and for about 10 minutes we get some actual narrative momentum; he finds the leprechaun's single missing gold piece and discovers by accident, mostly, that it can grant him a wish, so the leprechaun starts to chase him down, but the coin keeps being stolen by the various shady people in the Lucky Shamrock: Loretta, her indeterminately homosexual partner in villainy, Fazio (John DeMita), the same crappy magician that Tammy works for, and the casino's owner, Mitch (Michael Callan), who looks like he got into casino running primarily because being a pornography magnate was too much effort. He's also being hounded by a pair of unnervingly shticky comic gangsters, Art (Tom Dugan), and Tony (Roger Hewlett). That sounds like a good number of potential victims, right? "Potential" will have to be the watchword, though, because it takes another 29 minutes for the next kill, during which the plot, having been briefly stirred by the appearance of something like rising action, yawns and turns over and dozes off, not to be roused no matter how hard we shake it, though when the leprechaun bleeds all over Scott and turns him into a human-leprechaun hybrid - Gatins's Irish brogue makes me want to take back everything bad I've said about Davis's to this point - it opens one eye, briefly.

The directness with which this went to video is apparent in nearly every single element: the paucity of locations and the somewhat undernourished quality therein (though the pawn shop looks pretty much like a pawn shop in Vegas had ought to). the crappy acting, the MIDI-scented musical score, and the unrelievedly shitty cinematography. Worst of all is how much the film does not know what to do with a leprechaun in Las Vegas once they get him there: one montage on the Strip, and a couple of lines about preying on human greed, and that is it - and somehow the filmmakers almost seem to be aware of this, putting in a scene where the little man pauses outside a girlie show, and decides he doesn't have the time, as much as admitting "we don't actually want to be as resolutely gaudy as this scenario would seem to demand." There is a sequence where the leprechaun meets an Elvis impersonator (Terry Lee Crisp), and Davis obvious has a field day doing his own Elvis routine; it is a stupid scene, but cute enough on its own terms.

The worst parts of the film, though, have nothing to do with budget or location: it's a simple, idiotic horror film that squanders its best resource in Davis's leprechaun, leaving him trapped in a pawn shop for much of the running time, wasting him on a sequence that requires him to use magic to torment Mitch through a television in a series of gags reminiscent of the absolute worst of Freddy Krueger's decline (he is much more of a Krueger knock-off in this picture than the other two, in fact), and giving him virtually no chance to interact with the main "plot", such as it is. DuBos deserves at least some credit for committing to the idea that the leprechaun communicates primarily in rhyming doggerel - I am not sure that he speaks any lines at all that don't rhyme, in fact - which increases the sense of whimsy and gives Davis a bit more to play with, though at the same time he is turned into more of a caricature, if that was even possible: impersonating E.R. doctors, quipping idiotically, and generally acting like somebody was very jealous of the violent cartoon logic of Gremlins 2: The New Batch, and hadn't the talent to make a successful rip-off.

And when Davis is shipped offscreen, we have instead a woefully uncharismatic lead who can't act, a romantic interest who can act a little bit, but isn't given anything to do, and a whole lot of filler, such that, while you can look at it when it's done and say what the story was, from moment to moment it feels like absolutely nothing is happening, and it's being inordinately slow about it. I know I have to leave myself some wiggle room, for it's still not at all as bad as the franchise ended up becoming, but that's really not saying very much at all; and Leprechaun 3 is so endlessly addled and pointless that it's greatest sin isn't that it's bad, but that it is stultifying and boring. It seems wrong that the leprechaun's adventure in Las Vegas should be, so much blander than his previous outings, but the mere fact that the filmmakers were able to make that happen is proof of how very little their film has going on in its vacant head.

Body Count: 8, and depending on how we read the scene where Evil Scott breaks out the hospital, maybe another 2 more; I take this to be the kind of film that seeks to indemnify its hero from doing anything wicked, but if that were the case, surely we'd have a shot showing that they were okay, and there is no such thing. Incidentally, while either figure is the biggest in the series, it absolutely does not feel that way.

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)

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