25 March 2012

YEAR OF BLOOD: SEMPER FI! DO OR DIE! KILL! KILL! KILL!

There is a notion with some currency out in the wide world that outer space is where horror franchises go to die; it is the modern analogue to how every Universal Studios monster series famously ended with a visit from Abbott and Costello. To a certain degree, this trend is overstated, but there are enough examples that you can't shake it, and more than once it has represented the moment at which a franchise either ground to a close or jumped off the tracks to become some new and more awful version of itself. The best that I have been able to figure out is that this began with 1992's Critters 4, that it first infected one of the relatively A-list franchises with Hellraiser: Bloodline in 1996, and that here in the second decade of the 21st Century, the most notorious example of the form is the infamous Jason X of 2001. But we are here to speak of none of those films, but of the movie which I think represents the moment at which "... in Space!" was codified as the last refuge of scoundrels (owing in no small part to the shamelessness of "...in Space" being right there in its gosh-damned title), and is almost certainly still the best-known example after Jason Voorhees's trip to the future. We are here, ladies and gentlemen, to ponder over the singularly unlovely and weird piece of cinematic detritus from 1997 that is Leprechaun 4: In Space.

The film's grotesqueries do not end with the intense and unmistakably deliberate peculiarity of taking a centuries-old Irish sprite who was last seen burning to a crisp in Las Vegas, Nevada and putting him on a planet light years away from Earth in the far-flung future (that is, according to one tossed-away line of dialogue, sometime in the 21st Century). In fact, they barely begin there; by the time the really damn peculiar stuff starts hitting, the collision of Leprechaun with direct-to-video science fiction does not even register, nor is it fair or, frankly, useful to complain about narrative continuity. That ship had sailed, run aground on rocks, sank, and been looted by castaways by the time Leprechaun 4: In Space showed its shriveled head.

What is truly special and perverse about the film is its wantonness regarding tone and genre; horror-comedy is older than sound cinema, of course, and it's been part of Leprechaun since the beginning, so the mere fact that In Space is a very silly movie and very enthusiastic about it is not at all what I refer to; and the hybridisation of horror with sci-fi is common enough that the entire spectrum of "too much horror" to "too much sci-fi" is familiar to the point where the relative paucity of anything even pretending to be horror in this particular movie barely registers.

It's the kind of comedy and the kind of sci-fi that are so damn bizarre, and especially the way that it's all put together, as though writer Dennis Pratt had a list of concepts and a screenplay to hold them all, and got them confused at the last moment, leaving the filmmakers scrambling on set to find the connective tissue between scenes that play pretty much from beginning to end as "hey, wouldn't it be cool if the leprechaun did..." And it doesn't help any matters at all that whatever was true or not of Pratt's screenplay, the film was directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith, the man responsible for Leprechaun 3 as well (he is the series' only returning director), and a man whose work is generally kind of addled as to what direction it's supposed to be heading; his approach in this film was to continue shooting and pacing scenes like it was a conventional post-slasher movie, thereby stomping all over the humor and parody that dominate the screenplay to the point of exhaustion.

And thus we have a film straddling three compatible but unmistakably different narrative forms, and while film history is littered with successful examples of such hybrids, Trenchard-Smith is avowedly not the kind of man apt to succeed in this way; nor, ultimately, are the limitations imposed by virtue of being a Leprechaun picture all that conducive to flexible genre experimentation, and so to the surprise of absolutely nobody at all, In Space is just a shambles, colliding ideas with one another like a toddler slamming blocks onto the floor, hopscotching from general pop-culture riffing to specific parody of specific science fiction films and more general SF tropes, and further to the broad slapstick that's always just an inch under the surface of this whole entire franchise. It is somewhat bracing; and it is far more disorienting, and exhausting, and frustrating.

The plot involves that beloved favorite of post-Aliens filmmakers, space marines. These particular space marines are actually rather more like space mercenaries doing double-duty as space bounty hunters, and other than their Marine-ish chants and shouts, and the R. Lee Ermey-esque ranting of a stock sergeant with a metal plate on his skull (Tim Colceri), there is no particular reason to give them that name at all. But still, space marines, a most noble tradition from out of sci-fi/horror antiquity. When we meet them, these space marines on a planet where they expect to find... I don't exactly know how they end up at the planet, actually, but they find the leprechaun, played for the fourth time by Warwick Davis, whose enthusiasm for the role has not abated in the slightest, even as he is given far fewer lines worthy of the clotty Oirish accent that is, in and of itself, less prominent here than in previous entries.

The leprechaun has stolen a Dominian princess (if Dominia is a planet, a space-empire, or just a nation, we don't ever quite learn) named Zarina (Rebekah Carlton), and seduced her using the time-tested approach of "I might be ugly as all sin, but I have a good deal of money". This does not stop the marines from blowing up the leprechaun using all sorts of high tech weaponry, though he manages to take one of them out first (using a lightsaber), and even his scattered remains prove to be a bit of a danger when the cocky Kowalski (Geoff Meed) decides to celebrate his victory over the little creature by pissing on his head. This somehow allows the leprechaun's soul to travel into Kowalski's body, erupting from the man's penis the first time the marine gets a boner, and naturally the leprechaun makes a condom joke, though I am disappointed to report that he does not make a proper VD joke. Also, by using the word "prophylactic", Pratt steals even the small measure of comic energy generated hereby; just say the word once or twice. Prophylactic. Not very easy to get around it, isn't it? A clumsy word with too many plosive consonants. Not good for comedy, plosive consonants.

Anyway, the thing goes exactly where you expect: a bunch of space marines, chief among them Staff Sergeant "Books" Malloy (Brent Jasmer), who is presumably better able to fight leprechauns on account of having Irish blood in him, chase the little malicious bastard, and mostly get killed when they find him; civilian scientist Dr. Tina Reeves (Jessica Collins) stands around and furrows her brow and proves to be a more competent soldier than most of the space marines. And there is an evil Nazi scientist, Dr. Mittenhand (Guy Siner). Probably not a Nazi Nazi, but the first time you are watching Leprechaun 4: In Space, and a computer monitor swings into view and a leering bald head stares out of the monitor and screams invective at the characters in a sputtering "Orderz vich vill be oh-bayed vizzout kvestion!" accent, it's one of those privileged moviewatching moments where you understand with almost indescribable clarity that the filmmakers did not give any kind of fuck that there is to be given.

The film insures itself, a little bit, by being an overt comedy; but it would help if it were in any way a funny comedy, even a well-behaved post-Scream funny horror movie where most of the jokes were about how stupid horror movies are. Neither of these are the case; instead, In Space is either groin humor, or parodies of famous sci-fi movies running pretty much the entire history of sound horror up to the film's production date, or Warwick Davis saying sub-Freddy Krueger quips as he offs people. So basically, the comedy of all three preceding Leprechauns, only with the accompanying horror, even the watery, unscary horror of this franchise, skillfully removed.

Surprisingly, there's virtually no humor played from the one seemingly obvious angle: a folkloric being on a futuristic spaceship. The leprechaun has, by this point, almost completely shed whatever it is about him that was tied to myth in the first place: gold barely registers as a plot point, and there is essentially none of the rhyming singsong that was such a huge part of his personality till now. It's surely not an accident that the only moment of any kind of verbal poetry is also the absolute best thing in the film; considering his upcoming seduction of Zarina, the leprechaun muses that he can "wed her, bed her, and bury her, all in the same day". And boy oh Christ, it's not until you write "best thing" and that line in close proximity that you really realise just how far Leprechaun 4: In Space has gone wrong. At this point, the leprechaun shtick in toto is just a crutch for Davis to do space movie themed stand-up in a weird costume; I never would have thought I'd miss the clumsy antics of the older movies, but at least the character and the performance had something special to them. Whereas here, it's just a stock japing bad guy, and it falls entirely to the cartoony Dr. Mittenhand to keep the movie firmly in "so bad it's good" territory. I don't think he succeeds; I think, in fact, that the movie is so bad it's bad. It is, however, a more credible, professional piece of filmmaking than Leprechaun 3, with sets that look halfway decent and generally clear cinematography, and good sound recording, so it is better, I guess, to suggest that the series has plateaued - bottomed-out, rather - instead of hit a low. Still, the crappiness of Davis's leprechaun is new and unwanted, and that alone is enough to suck whatever quantum of joy this series has ever had to offer from this particular entry.

Body Count: 9, the high point in the series thus far. Because nothing says wacky genre hybrid comedy like an inflated death count.

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:

KayMartha12 said...

Hi Tim,

I am a longtime reader who posts at the most random of times. I am a teacher, and one of my students claims to have a horror DVD collection, Leprechaun series included. I think he would appreciate your horror retrospectives. Keep up the writing!