Depending on who you ask, the 1990s was either one of the best decades for horror or the absolute worst. Video stores and cheapo horror franchises were at peak saturation, and all one had to do was wander the aisles of their local Blockbuster to see the glut of gimmicky slashers churned out to make an easy buck on rentals and then be quickly forgotten. Surely you must remember such classics as Ghoulies Go to College, Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge, or The Dentist 2: Brace Yourself?
None of those series ever had quite the quarter-century shelf life or (admittedly threadbare) cultural relevance as the Leprechaun saga, of which there are currently eight installments — the first released in 1993 and the last a mere three years ago in 2018. And folks, I have some troubling news to impart: For the purposes of this article, I watched every single one of these movies, scouring every frame for whatever redeeming qualities they may hold. Even sadder? This isn’t my first time doing that (for most of these movies). So as we tour the different eras of this low-rent franchise in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, take comfort in knowing you’re in the hands of a bonafide Leprechaun expert, a devotee of the limerick-slinging, gold-worshipping villain at the center of it all.
The Gold(en) Age (1993-1996)
Unlike Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers or Pinhead, our beloved bloodthirsty Leprechaun (played in the first six movies by Return of the Jedi and Willow alum Warwick Davis) didn’t kick off his series with a certified horror banger. No, 1993’s Leprechaun is just straight-up bad by nearly every standard. This thing is shoddy as hell and squanders what little budget it does have following some of the worst human beings you’ll find onscreen around a dusty old farm for 92 minutes. The premise here is virtually the same as in the next two flicks: A group of characters finds a pot of gold. That gold is revealed to belong to a killer leprechaun. Said leprechaun (henceforth known as Lep) then murders his way through those characters with varying levels of ingenuity.
There are precisely three noteworthy elements to the OG Leprechaun:
1). This is the theatrical debut of Jennifer Aniston, showing none of the charisma here that would launch her into superstardom when Friends premiered the following year.
2). Davis, without whom this franchise would be nothing, can drop weak one-liners and limericks with eerie conviction. Lep has a rhyme to go along with every kill; it’s uncanny! Davis’s performance also wouldn’t be nearly as effective without the makeup effects of Gabe Bartalos, which give Lep an inhuman, demonic look that nevertheless allows for plenty of expressiveness.
3). Lep graphically pogo-sticks a man to death while singing this little ditty: “This old Lep, he played one / He played pogo on his lung.” Great scene, A+ work.
Perhaps the only thing surprising about 1994’s Leprechaun 2 is that it managed to get a theatrical release in the first place. Rushed into production and an absolute bomb at the box office (it made less than $1 million in its opening weekend), it’s a carbon copy of the original with even lazier set design and less memorable characters. This time, they throw in a new plot thread about our villain wanting to chase down and marry the descendent of one of his former slaves. (Yikes, Lep!). There is a somewhat amusing death wherein a barista’s face is melted off with a coffee steamer and, most importantly, we are all-too-briefly introduced to the Lepmobile, which is essentially a GoKart with spikes and a three-leaf clover emblazoned on the front.
To call Leprechaun 3 (hastily released another year later in 1995) a good movie is like eating at Hardee’s and saying it’s decent because it didn’t give you food poisoning. And yet it’s a solid slice of VHS trash, offering more novel bits of weirdness than the first two entries put together. Part of that is likely due to the hiring of exploitation veteran Brian Trenchard-Smith, the director behind titles like Dead-End Drive-In and The Man from Hong Kong. The plot is once again the same, but this time we’re in Vegas, baby!
Still, Leprechaun 3 is the first time the series capitalizes on its overt silliness. Lep magically fills a woman with silicone until she explodes (“Bigger is good, but jumbo is dear / I’ll give ya boobs that’ll come out to here!”), a robot lady electrocutes a guy to death, the male protagonist transforms into a leprechaun-human hybrid at one point. The production values are as cheap as ever, alternating between what appears to be two different interior locations, but as far as Lep adventures go, this wastes the least amount of time following cardboard characters aimlessly wandering around and mostly delivers on the gory leprechaun shenanigans.
Released in — you guessed it — 1996, Leprechaun 4: In Space proves that a film in which a man is killed by a leprechaun coming out of his urethra can still be bad. And if that’s not a damning indictment, then I don’t know what is. In Space makes Jason X look like Aliens, and boy does it want to be Aliens.
The meathead space Marines, a late-in-the-game reveal that one of the ship’s crew is actually a cyborg, nefarious corporate overlords … it’s all there, except now it’s all shot inside a really big cardboard box painted to resemble a spaceship and populated by actors you’ll be shocked to learn are not adult film stars. Lep’s powers and mythology continue to be completely incoherent and he’s now trying to woo a space princess who wants his gold for some reason. Even when the movie’s other villain, a Nazi doctor / CEO / weirdo Dr. Mittenhand (amazing name, to be fair), is mutated into a giant spider (“I am now … Mittenspider!”), the non-existent budget and lack of ingenuity behind the camera ensure sure you never get too good of a look at his design. A shot toward the end says it all: After Lep’s exploded remains are shot out into space (had to sneak one last Alien homage in there!), his severed hand turns towards the camera and flips the bird to an audience that should have known better.
The ‘Hood Years (2000-2003)
Given the length of time it takes for one to travel all the way from the deep echelons of space and back to Earth, it makes sense that it took four whole years for Lep to make his next onscreen appearance with 2000’s Leprechaun in the Hood. And wow, from a 2021 perspective the title alone promises a wealth of problematic racial stereotypes, doesn’t it? While it is not my place to parse out the politics of a killer leprechaun movie starring Ice-T, I will say that in its defense, the three central characters here (aspiring rappers with the monikers Postmaster P, Stray Bullet and Butch) are by far the most fleshed-out of the entire franchise.
The story dresses up the traditional formula by meshing it with a Monkey’s Paw-style tale about three MCs sacrificing the message of their socially conscious hip-hop for trendy gangsta rap at the urgings of a greedy music mogul played by Ice-T, who coincidentally found his fortune by ripping off Lep’s gold decades ago. No points for guessing whether that decision may come back to bite him. Don’t worry, though, we’re still talking about a movie called Leprechaun in the Hood. Its inclusion of characters with, you know, actual motivations and relationships (I’m using those terms lightly) doesn’t mean we won’t be subjected to such delights as a golden flute that hypnotizes those who hear its sound, a man getting his throat slashed with a hair pick from his afro, Lep smoking a joint with Ice-T or an end-credits rap by Warwick Davis himself titled “Lep In the Hood Come To Do No Good.” There’s not enough here to warrant a recommendation, but it avoids being the abysmal train wreck its name all but promises.
Inexplicably, Leprechaun: Back 2 tha’ Hood (2003), the series’ fifth sequel and second in its newfound urban setting, features the best (again, take this adjective with a grain of salt) characters and performances thus far. The story is less fantastical this time around, focusing on a group of friends trying to use the gold they’ve found to escape their poverty-stricken environments. Any time you see effort given in these movies, points must be given.
Lep himself even gets a mild makeover this time around, with a rattier, tattered green outfit and way less of a reliance on one-liners. It’s a bit like early Freddy Krueger before he turned silly and faced the Dream Warriors. Plus, Lep stabs a dude in the dick with a bong. If you’re inclined to pay a visit to the mean streets of Leprechaun’s hood, this is definitely the one to choose.
The Post-Warwick Era (2014-2018)
It’s frankly incredible that Davis stayed with the series as long as he did, and after 2003, cinephiles of the world were forced to endure 11 miserable years without a Leprechaun film… but boy were they punished for that time spent waiting. Leprechaun: Origins is a 2014 production by WWE Studios and is the worst kind of reboot, one that has nothing to do with the previous series except using a name that could garner some mild brand recognition to trick people into watching this terrible movie. Origins follows four young adults traveling through the Irish countryside who happen upon an abandoned cabin and are then hunted down by a snarling little mole rat (#NotMyLeprechaun).
Out of respect for our sharp-tongued Lord Warwick Davis, I almost opted to skip this one, as it was clearly rewritten or re-shot at the last minute to earn its Leprechaun title. But for completists’ sake, I’ll simply tell you to steer clear of this movie you’ve likely never heard of, where this Imposter Leprechaun is mostly hidden from viewers in dimly lit rooms for obvious budgetary reasons and doesn’t spout a single limerick! For shame. Side note: Origins also utilizes endless POV shots to show that Imposter Leprechaun has thermal vision that looks like a brain-damaged version of the Predator’s. It genuinely feels like they take up a quarter of the running time.
But hope springs eternal, dear reader, and in 2018, the SyFy Channel decided to jump on the rebootquel train a la David Gordon Green’s Halloween, with a film that ignores every previous sequel and serves as a direct follow-up to the original. That’s right, Leprechaun Returns was going back to the franchise’s roots, man. An odd choice, as the first movie is not the classic 1978’s Halloween was and is, in fact, quite shitty. While SyFy couldn’t manage to get our boy Warwick to return, they were savvy enough to hire director Steven Kostanski, the up-and-coming genre director behind schlock throwbacks such as The Void and this year’s excellent Power-Rangers-meets-Hellraiser flick Psycho Goreman.
Kill for kill, Returns is the series champ, letting Lep (now played by Linden Porco) cut loose by running over dudes’ faces with mail trucks, turning a victim into a human blood sprinkler and presiding over several other delightfully inventive set pieces. In fact, not a single death feels wasted here. The characters? What about ‘em? You’re not here for them, and Kostanski knows it. After eight of these damn things, it’s nice to actually find a little gold at the end of this rainbow.