31 March 2012

YEAR OF BLOOD: MAY THE ROAD RISE EVER TO- AH, SCREW IT

So we arrive at what is, as of March, 2012, the last film in the much-derided and wholly-deridable Leprechaun franchise, and the first of the six that can be plausibly considered as an actual sequel to anything that has gone before it. I speak of 2003's Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood, of course, which doesn't in fact reference 2000's Leprechaun in the Hood in any way, but also does not whatsoever contradict it or require particularly dubious fanwanking to get started, and this will have to do for a series that has previously suggested without blinking that the same villainous imp could be trapped in a North Dakota basement for a 10-year span that overlaps with the time he was in a cavern beneath tree roots in Hollywood and as the centerpiece of a rap impresario's art collection in Compton, that after exploding he could be turned into a statue with a magical necklace on it (twice), and somewhere in all of that he ends up on another planet in the future, though perhaps we can argue that Leprechaun 4: In Space, despite its numerical designation, is chronologically discontinuous with the rest of the films, and that there's room for dozens of sequels yet charting exactly how the horrid little Irish bastard left Earth to romance a space princess, and if the threatened 2013 reboot doesn't do exactly that, I will consider myself ill-used by Lionsgate.

Anyway, Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood, the first little glimmer of continuity in the whole franchise. I imagine that there's at least a chance your reaction to that title is about the same as mine: your pupils widen, your tongue dries up a little bit, you cock your head ever so slightly, and your look is halfway between "oh, so that's what's been stinking up the refrigerator" and "wait, how can you tell a rattlesnake from a cicada?" Well, fear not, my idealised reader and compatriot in being vaguely threatened by the existence of a thing called Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood! In cold, probing fact, it's actually one of the best films in the franchise, which is one of the nastiest compliments you could pay a movie, sure, but it remains that this is nearer to the best-case scenario indicated by that name than the worst-case. I am agnostic on the question of which of the two Hood movies is superior: In the Hood is far more of a credible horror movie and generally treats the leprechaun with more respect, while Back 2 tha Hood has a more appealing protagonist and looks like it cost a whole lot more; both of them are more effectively funny that nearly anything else in the franchise, and both are kind of racist, but Back 2 tha Hood - fun game, every time you type it, your soul dies a little bit more! - is considerable less misogynist, and that may well end up being the tiebreaker, particularly because the film also lacks the unpleasantly surreal sight of Warwick Davis, in full leprechaun costume and with his unconvincing Irish brogue largely intact, rapping about a "lep in the hood, come to do no good".

In this film, we finally learn the secret history of how the leprechaun came to be, because insanely, it's apparently not just "leprechauns are greedy fucks who will kill the holy living shit out of you for stealing their gold". It seems that 2000 years ago, the King (of Ireland? Then they're off by about 600 years) was anxious to protect his gold from his many enemies, and called spirits out of the earth to be his guardians; after his death, all of these earth spirits returned... save one, and he grew corrupt and evil with the passage of centuries. For those keeping score at home, no, this has absolutely nothing to do with genuine Irish folklore, it's hard to square with the other five movies, and it absolutely smashes the notion that the discordant continuity in the franchise can be massaged out by saying that they're actually five different leprechauns, all of them coincidentally played by Warwick Davis; because if there's really and truly just one, then the gnarl I pointed out up above really does just sit there and stare at us, daring us to make a gram of sense out of any of it. But the history is related in a swell little animated sequence that looks like cartoon woodcarving, so it's all cool, even if the same exact material shows up in a far more narratively satisfying way about two-thirds into the movie.

So, our Last of the Leprechauns, having built a rap empire in Compton at the end of the last film, has apparently not become any nicer for it; when we meet him, he's hunting down a man of the cloth, Father Jacob (Willie C. Carpenter); it seems that the father stole some of the leprechaun's gold to finance the construction of a youth center, holding to the common low-grade ghettosploitation movie notion that it only takes one earnest reverend and a shiny new youth center to save all the teens in the area from drugs, gang violence, prostitution, and death in prison. Jacob will not get a chance to test his theory; though he succeeds in praying the leprechaun into hell with the aid of clover-infused holy water, the exertion gives him a heart attack and he dies on the spot. Because heart attacks are terrific ways to kill off the cast in a horror movie.

One year later, a group of teenagers bemoan the sorry state of their neighborhood since Father Jacob's passing: since we'll need to know who they are, it's fair to name them, although the movie itself will not do so for a good while. Emily (Tangi Miller) is our obvious Final Girl - the first Leprechaun movie to have a Final Girl since the very first one, no less - a resentful salon employee just trying to scrape together enough money to go to school at Kansas State; "the only [vernacular word meaning "brown-skinned person" derived from the Spanish negro] in Kansas!" cackle her unsupportive co-workers, kicking off a cavalcade of N-bombs that are frankly rather uncomfortable-making for this white critic, though writer-director Steven Ayromlooi is presumably not white (though where exactly his surname hails from, I can't quite figure out), unlike In the Hood's Rob Spera, and this at least knocks some of the ickiness off of it. The impression we get, anyway, is that Emily wants to go to Whiteland U.S.A. because it is the furthest possible thing from her current surroundings (which are never stated outright to be Compton, or even L.A.), and given the way she's treated, it's not hard to understand why. Her friends are Lisa (Sherrie Jackson), who isn't given much in the way of a personality beyond "likable", and Jamie (Page Kennedy), a grimacing nightmare from a marijuana-themed minstrel show who, I am thrilled to report, drifts to the sidelines almost the instant the plot itself kicks off. There's also, kind of, Rory (Laz Alonso, who managed to scramble his way to something like a real career after this movie), Emily's former boyfriend, now on the outs since he's turned to drug-dealing to make a career for himself.

The first 20 minutes and some establish, with unusual effectiveness for a direct-to-video horror-comedy, the personalities and dreams of the four principals, insofar as they have personalities and dreams, and then Emily falls into a hole right where the leprechaun last appeared; she explores around while Rory looks for a way to get her out, and in the process finds a chest of ancient gold coins. Stealing this from their subterranean hidey-hole turns out to be all it takes to revive the leprechaun - and was not Emily warned away from this exact possibility by the mysterious local psychic (Donzaleigh Abernathy) - and he sets about retrieving all of his treasure, though the foursome, having split the gold into equal quarters, have already spent enough by the time this happens that he's too busy chasing down loose ends at first to really focus on the actual thieves.

It sort of writes itself, really; and in another life, I might be inclined to call Back 2 tha Hood lazy and unbearable clich├ęd horror filmmaking that cares so little about itself that calling it "horror" is really little more than an honorific; this takes from In Space the dubious title of the most overtly comic Leprechaun movie. But in this life, I have seen the depths to which Leprechaun films can sink, and the mere facts that B2TH is entirely coherent in its storytelling, has reasonably well-defined characters, and some of the comedy actually lands in the vicinity of "funny", are enough to dispose me towards it; not to mention that the shot-on-video boom of the 2000s resulted in DTV horror and DTV horror-comedy so unbelievable bad that even a Leprechaun film looks decent in comparison. The horror movie fancier quickly learns the value of grading on a curve, and by 2003 standards, this is, if not exactly decent, surely not so terrible as to merit much comment on that front.

It's still got plenty of problems, above and beyond being a tepid horror-comedy; chief among them is that Ayromlooi doesn't really have much of a sense of what to do with the leprechaun, and the result is only the second time in six films where he doesn't speak in irritating rhymes, which was always pretty much the only thing separating him from Freddy Krueger; that trickles into Davis's performance, too, and in the end B2TH has the worst leprechaun business of any Leprechaun film. And this can be fairly considered a crippling flaw. But I'll say this: crippling flaws and all, the film didn't make me feel sorry for every decision I've ever made in my whole life, and in that respect it is a improvement over Leprechaun 3. Grading on a curve, folks. Sometimes it's all that stands between you and a howling abyss of Lovecraftian madness.

Body Count: 10 is a fairly absolute number, and that is already the series record; but there are also 2 other figures who almost certainly die, but they're thrown off-screen so thoughtlessly that I wouldn't swear to it in a court of law. As for what happens to the leprechaun himself, I am not quite willing to pull the trigger on calling it a death, but it's right on the knife's edge.

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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