29 March 2012

YEAR OF BLOOD: YOU KNOW THE LEP IS THE REAL O.G.

In the wake of Leprechaun 4: In Space, the Leprechaun series really didn't have any choice but to improve, assuming of course that in the wake of Leprechaun 4: In Space anybody still gave a shit about the franchise on any level. And initially, it seemed like nobody giving a shit was exactly the fate in store for Warwick Davis's angry little rhyming fay. The first three films in the series came out in three consecutive years, and there was only a one-year break between the third and fourth; but three years ended up going by before LF:IS was followed by Leprechaun in the Hood, and I cannot find it in me to assume that there existed a movie buff between 1997 and 2000 who was all that broken up about this turn of events, or that anyone greeted the news of the fifth film's release with a profound sense of gratefulness and relief. Because, Jesus H. Fucknuts, Leprechaun in the Hood. It's not Las Vegas or space, but that's still pretty concept-ey in the worst way possible.

But then again: the series really didn't have any choice to improve, and that's exactly what it did: I am inclined to say, all in all, that it is is the second-best film in the series up to that point, following only Leprechaun 2, which was the only previous Leprechaun film to take place in a predominately urban environment, allowing that Las Vegas is some kind of fantasy theme park nightmare that isn't actually "urban" in the sense that Los Angeles, California is, as depicted in either L2 or LITH. Perhaps there's something about the contrast between the indefatigable tweeness of the leprechaun and the griminess of the city streets; perhaps it's because Leprechaun 3 and Leprechaun 4: In Space are just so ungodly foul that the films bookending them can't help but look good in comparison, and it's just a coincidence. Regardless, Leprechaun in the Hood is a genuinely functional horror movie, and if "functional" doesn't sound like much of a compliment, that's because I never went so far as to say it's a good horror movie, but in the wake of the incomprehensible slurry of genre parody and stand-up routines that made up the fourth movie, "functional" is a breath of fresh air as warm and friendly as if this were a Dario Argento horror picture, and not a direct-to-video effort from the director of the first Witchcraft (his name is Rob Spera, though I hate to call a fella out in public for having directed both a Witchcraft and a Leprechaun picture).

After a superfluous opening scene of the leprchaun in an underground layer counting gold that exactly recalls the beginning of the first Leprechaun (nor am I certain that it's not the same footage), we arrive in the 1970s, when a young striver who will eventually go by the name of Mack Daddy Onassis (Ice-T) - because he "own[s] asses" in one of the film's piquant evocations of the pimp lifestyle - breaks into an underground room with his expendable meat buddy. Here they find a pot of gold and an ugly statue of a leprechaun wearing a gold medallion, and in their greedy haste, they snatch the medallion and bring the nasty little bastard to life - just like in Leprechaun 3, which makes the first three movies all referenced within the opening five minutes, as though continuity was suddenly a concern - though the future Mack Daddy accidentally re-seals the leprechaun into a stony tomb with the medallion. Thus armed with a huge pile of magic gold and knowledge of how to control the gold's true owner, he becomes a hip-hop impresario, and we jump ahead to the late 1990s, where a singularly dreadful rap group made up of Postmaster P (A.T. Montgomery), Stray Bullet (Rashaan Nall), and Butch (Red Grant) are trying to get their characteristic brand of anti-gangsta rap out in the world, and make life in Compton a better place with a message of tolerance, peace, and not slapping bitches up.

Their meeting with Mack Daddy goes fairly badly, but they manage in the process to steal a magic golden flute from his leprechaun pile, shoot him (not fatally, but they don't realise this fact), and free the leprechaun. Since the flute turns out to be the very device by which Mack Daddy came to rule a rap empire - it makes the listener more receptive to any kind of music you play along with it - that makes two insatiable monsters chasing our three heroes through Compton on a flute hunt, though only one of them speaks with a wobbly Irish accent that just flat out goes away in scenes when Davis has to focus on doing absolutely anything else.

It's not the most elegant set-up for what amounts to a feature-length chase scene that isn't remotely scary enough to qualify as horror (assuming the franchise even had horror as a background concern by this point), and quippy but not nearly as madcap as it would be if it were aiming for straight-up comedy; but hard on the heels of "something something space marines and also a Nazi mad scientist who's a cyborg", the straightforward simplicity of Leprechaun in the Hood is gratifying. It's a relatively tight little thriller with three characters - or at least, with Postmaster P - who are mostly human beings to root for, and for the first time in the Leprechaun franchise, a lot of the jokes actually manage to land: the most famous bit is certainly the leprechaun's philosophy about marijuana, "a friend with weed is a friend indeed; but a friend with gold is the best, I'm told", but scattered throughout are enough zingy one-liners - most of them not delivered by the leprechaun, in point of fact - that the whole thing isn't excruciating as comedy, even if it misses more than it hits.

That's probably the single best thing I can say for the film, though, which leaves a lot of room to be disappointed or outright repelled, though unlike the third and fourth entries, this film never left me with the feeling that I was being punished for something. The worst thing about it - or the most shocking in its badness, anyway - is that Warwick Davis is honestly just not much good in it, and that's after being the unequivocal best part of all four prior movies. Partially it's because he's given precious little to do, and a lot of that is outrageously stupid: in the back half of the film, he's set himself up as a pimp, meaning that Davis is obliged to play offensive stereotypes of two entirely separate cultures. But he does seem a bit tired, reciting gold jokes for yet another movie, or barreling through an insufferable, ostensibly comic rap at the end.

Beyond that, the acting is largely ephemeral: Ice-T is neither terribly good nor terribly bad in the context of all rappers-turned-actors, while the three protagonists are mostly underwritten. And of course, a film called Leprechaun in the Hood isn't exactly setting itself up to be a model of sociological insight, but there's a definitely middle-aged white guy vibe to the whole affair, depicting urban hip-hop culture with what I am certain the bevy of writers (five all told, of whom only Spera had any previous experience) thought was sympathy, but which looks more like the uncomprehending reduction of black people to the most basic sort of cartoons, possibly with an intellectual out in the form of "we're parodying blaxploitation!", which might be the only possible defense by which Mack Daddy Ownasses is even marginally acceptable as a character name. And that's not touching on the horrifying depiction of the Engrish-spouting Chinese shop-owner, or the film's unexpected detour to visit a drag queen.

It's not, like racist or homophobic, just sort of insensitive. It is sexist, indubitably so; other than Post's blind grandma (Bebe Drake), the significant female characters are the collective Zombie Fly Girls called up to do the leprechaun's evil bidding, while wearing very little clothing. But again, Leprechaun in the Hood. We can be offended, but surely not surprised in even the most marginal degree.

The film does absolutely nothing to hide its DTV roots; while not looking so obnoxiously cheap as Leprechaun 3, it relies on a small number of vague sets, there are only modest make-up effects, and the leprechaun himself looks a bit plasticky and threadbare; it helps that there's not so much of him (less, I think, than in any other Leprechaun film), but when he shows up he's just kind of chintzy, and not only because his dapper party-store Irish costume has never been the most compelling visual to grace a horror movie. All in all, the film neither looks nor acts like the people making it cared very much; but at least they were mostly competent. That might only count for a little bit, but it's a little bit more than the last two films could claim, and while 2000 was a better year for horror than 1995, there was still precious little good, solid horror filmmaking out there. It's not a very good film in any way, but it manages to be average, and that alone makes it a franchise standout.

Body Count: 9, flatlining from the previous movie; though an undisclosed number of women are killed offscreen, we are told; "fucked to death" by the leprechaun.

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)

2 comments:

MrRoivas said...

Reading the line "fucked to death by the leprechaun" is twice more times than was necessary for a good life.

Groggy Dundee said...

I strongly disagree about Warwick Davis's rap: that's the highlight of the film for me. I could watch this movie a million times and never get sick of it - a true gem of terrible cinema. I really like your blog though and I'll keep an eye on it.